Although leprosy is completely curable, there is still a social stigma attached to it in Myanmar.
The time has come to change our attitude towards leprosy patients and their families to end the discrimination in society against those afflicted by the disease.
Social stigma and discrimination has hindered early testing and treatment of leprosy, leading to the spread of this disease among families and through social contact. Fear of the social and economic consequences of this disease has likewise inhibited early detection among children, resulting in disability and life-long complications.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has called for making efforts to eradicate discrimination against leprosy patients and their families a top priority in combating the disease in Myanmar.
To reverse the present situation, we need to make concerted efforts to educate people that leprosy is non-communicable so that they adopt the right attitude towards leprosy patients.
Health authorities should reach out to and include leprosy-affected persons and communities in all aspects of their programs. Not only will this make policy more responsive, it will also advance the interests and visibility of leprosy-affected persons in the public domain.
As part of this, persons suffering from the disease should be empowered to carry out advocacy activities as well as to participate in early identification and treatment campaigns.
Inadequate access to healthcare services is also a key deterrent to treatment. It is no coincidence that communities in hard-to-reach areas are the most affected, and that the burden of this disease is often highly concentrated. Migrant populations, displaced communities, and the very poor are particularly vulnerable due to their exclusion from health services generally, and gaps in targeted campaigns more specifically. Continued neglect will ensure that endemic areas remain so, and that affected communities continue to bear the unnecessary burden of this disease.
Non-governmental and civil society organizations should be included in society-wide campaigns to challenge leprosy-related stigma, and to ensure, as per UN resolutions, that discrimination against affected persons and their family members is eliminated.
In our ongoing efforts to achieve zero leprosy transmission and zero leprosy-related disabilities, inclusiveness is the remedy most urgently needed.
There is no dispute that leprosy is totally curable in the 21st century and that we all have a duty to see that the disease is eradicated.
Let us join hands to also put an end to discrimination.