Even as we rejoice the eradication of polio from India, another dreaded and stigmatized disease called leprosy continues to stalk the country. Though the impression among the public today is that India has been cleansed of the illness, nothing is farther from the truth.
In the year 2010-11, a whopping 1,27,000 persons were diagnosed with leprosy. The successive year, 1,35,00 new cases emerged. One million Indians are now estimated to be suffering from the disease, which is 58 per cent of the total international burden, and NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) has recently written to the Union Health Ministry asking for an explanation on the disturbing upward spiral.

Dr Sunil Anand, director, The Leprosy Mission Trust India, says it is a most unfortunate development because leprosy is one of the easiest diseases to detect and treat. “All that one has to do is check for patches of discoloration on the body where there is no sensation and approach the nearest hospital; but there is no awareness on the disease. The Government just hasn’t taken up any aggressive awareness campaigns on the lines of tuberculosis, AIDS and polio, and allowed the disease to grow.”

In 2005, leprosy was announced to have been eliminated from India, which means only one patient per 10,000 population remains, but since then, leprosy has constantly gone down the public health priority list, he underlines.

Add to that the stigma attached to the illness, propagated further by films, and patients don’t want to admit to the problem and seek treatment. “There are so many cases in our healthcare centres in Delhi,” informs Nikita Sarah, Head – Advocacy and Communication at The Leprosy Mission Trust India, “Who come from faraway places in the country just to escape drawing attention to their condition in their hometowns.”“A patient we had here was an educated chemistry teacher from Kolkata who had, first, only shown to quacks for lack of knowledge, and then came all the way to our Tahirpur (East Delhi) centre to hide his disease. Leprosy had affected him severely leaving him with serious deformities.”

Delhi, itself, houses seven colonies for the leprosy-afflicted with thousands of families living in isolation, not to mention the inhuman conditions they reside in.Then there is the problem of insensitive laws pertaining to the leprosy-affected and even more insensitive successive political leaders who have made no effort to amend them. Leprosy is accepted by courts as a ground for divorce, the such-affected are not given a driving licence and even prohibited from travelling in public transportation. To add insult to injury, they are even barred from contesting elections.

“These are all laws framed in the 1800s when no medication was available for leprosy,” informs Seema Baquer, a disability rights activist, “Now there is 100 per cent guarantee for cure with Multi Drug Therapy (MDT). It is lesser contagious than even Tuberculosis. When TB patients are not barred from taking public transport, why leprosy victims?” 
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