Leprosy patients need more help
By Shan Juan
Updated: 2008-01-25 07:29

More efforts should be made to eradicate leprosy and treat those suffering from the disease, despite it having been brought under control in the country, a leprosy expert said yesterday.

Pan Chunzhi, sectary-general of the China Leprosy Association, was speaking ahead of World Leprosy Day, which falls on Monday.

Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is a chronic infectious disease that when left untreated can cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes - with skin lesions being the primary external symptom.

The disease can be treated successfully with multi-drug therapy.

Long-term efforts by the government to prevent and control leprosy have paid off, with 90 percent of the country now having an incidence rate of less than one in 100,000 people, according to figures from the Ministry of Health (MOH).

By the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), China has successfully eliminated leprosy as a public health threat.

The introduction of multi-drug therapy by the WHO in the 1980s, which can cure the disease in a year, has played a major role in treatment, Pan said.

"Free drug therapy has been provided since then at designated leprosy clinics for anyone who needs it," she said, adding that there are now almost 1,000 clinics across the country.

Before then, people diagnosed with leprosy were exiled forcibly to remote leper colonies, she said.

"Despite the progress made, leprosy has yet to be eradicated, and is still a concern in 10 percent of the country, mainly the southwest," Pan said.

According to the MOH, there are currently about 6,300 leprosy patients nationwide, most of whom live in relatively remote areas in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hunan and Tibet.

In 1949, the number was almost 500,000.

About 1,600 new cases are reported every year, 2 percent of them children, Pan said.

Of the 210,000 leprosy survivors in the country, almost half have suffered some degree of physical disfigurement.

About 20,000 still live in "leper villages", Pan said.

The government has earmarked 220 million yuan ($30.5 million) this year to renovate or relocate more than 100 of the villages, Qi Xiaoqiu, director of the disease control department under the MOH, said.

He also called for early detection and treatment for the disease, which takes years to show symptoms.

Citing the late humanitarian Mother Teresa, who said the problem was not leprosy, "but rather the feeling of being unwanted", Qi urged for more support and understanding from the public for people suffering from leprosy.

"Discrimination against them is evil and a sign of ignorance," he said.

Leprosy, which is one of the world's oldest recorded diseases, with the first case mentioned in 600 BC, is transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth during contact with the infected.

Worldwide leprosy is still rife in underdeveloped and developing countries.

India is home to almost 70 percent of the world's leprosy sufferers.

(China Daily 01/25/2008 page5)