During this year’s World Leprosy Day activities in Nigeria, the World Health Organisation’s Global Health Observatory Data repository indicated that Nigeria ranks third among African countries with the highest burden of leprosy just behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Of the 212,000 persons affected by leprosy in 2015 worldwide, Nigeria had a total of 2,892, with the country recording a total of 43,179 cases in the last ten years. The report further indicated that globally, India leads with the highest number of leprosy cases followed by Brazil and Indonesia.
A further breakdown of the leprosy cases in Nigeria shows that, according to the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, the disease still poses a challenge in sixteen states which include Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Kebbi, Bauchi, Taraba, Niger, Kogi, Ebonyi, Abia, Cross River, Edo, Ogun and Lagos. This ugly development is, indeed, worrisome and poses danger to public health, as the disease is contagious as the germs can be passed through contacts.
Characteristically, leprosy, ostensibly the oldest disease in the world, is caused by a type of bacteria called mycobacterium leprae which has an incubation period of about five years while the symptoms can take as many as twenty years to appear on any part the skin and the peripheral nerves of the body. As one of the oldest diseases known to mankind, leprosy has been associated with such negative thoughts as many people say it is a punishment from God, a curse from the spirits, a hereditary disease, while many others trace it to one mythical or super-natural body or the other, while the rest say it runs in families as a result of one curse or the other from their fore-fathers. Whatever is the case, leprosy has been known to afflict peoples of the world and has been present in all the continents inhabited by mankind - it is a disease that can cause deformities in the extremities of the body such as the toes and the fingers, and can also affect some species of monkeys.
In the past, leprosy control measures attracted much attention from the various governments of the world. In Nigeria, the federal, regional, state and local governments did all to control the spread of the disease in our midst, and even went ahead to establish special centres for treating those who suffered it. In doing that, health personnel were regularly recruited and trained in the control of Henseniasis, another name for leprosy, with well-functioning leprosy control units established in all health centers where the diagnosis and treatment of the disease took place. Many religious organisations also participated in the effort to control the spread of leprosy, one of them being the Methodist Church that had established the Leprosy Referral and Treatment Centre at Uzuakoli that still situates in the town till today.
With the combined effort of the government, the churches and the health personnel, leprosy cases were effectively handled in our midst then that the cases began to reduce as treatments were given as determined and prescribed by the World Health Organisation from time to time. With the introduction of the Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) by the World Health Organisation in the 1990’s, leprosy spread was reduced drastically in Nigeria, and in 1998, the country had achieved the World Health Organisation’s elimination target of less than one case in every ten thousand population. However, as time passed, things began to fall nationwide in the control of leprosy and tuberculosis diseases, and have reached a crisis point in many states of the federation today, hence the resultant increase in the cases of leprosy in the country as confirmed by World Health Organisation.
Akoma writes from Isimkpu, Arochukwu, Abia State.