The Healing Hand
Jesus reached out His Hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” He said. “Be clean!”
Leprosy has terrorized humanity from Biblical times, with cases dating back to 600 BC in India, China, and Egypt. People with leprosy were considered ‘outcasts’. The disease had no cure back then and caused the person’s entire body to gradually disfigure. The leprosy patients were not allowed to come into contact with anyone who did not have the disease, and they had to ring the bell and yell “unclean” every time they did. They were forced to leave their homes and families to live with other patients on the outskirts of town. They even had to scavenge for food. The Jewish law also forbade them to re-enter society unless they had a certificate from a priest giving them a clean slate.
This stigma is not limited to Biblical times and still prevails in many sectors of society. Today, about 208,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the World Health Organization, most of them in Africa and Asia. About 100 people are diagnosed with leprosy in the U.S. every year, mostly in the South, California, Hawaii, and some U.S. territories. This is an infectious disease that causes severe body disfigurement leaving serious nerve damages in the arms, legs, and skin areas around your body. Leprosy, however, is a curable disease. In the last 2 decades, 16 million people with leprosy have been cured.
It is no coincidence that Leprosy Day is celebrated on 30th January. After all, it is the day of the martyrdom of the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, in his lifetime, did so much for those who had been affected by leprosy and even in death continues to remain an inspiration to us all. At a time when lepers were considered untouchables and driven away from society for fear of infection, Gandhi emerged as a beacon of hope to them, for he remained steadfast in his belief that leprosy was not contagious (studies have shown that leprosy does not spread from skin to skin contact, but rather from nasal fluids) and that everyone needed to be treated humanely. When lepers themselves implored Gandhi to stay away from them, Gandhi would insist on nursing them. One of the most famous incidents of this was with a leper named Shri. Parchure Shastri. They met when they had been jailed together in 1932. Shastri was kept isolated from the rest but Gandhi insisted on being in correspondence with him. When Shastri approached Gandhi at Sevagram Ashram in 1939, Gandhi managed to convince the ashram dwellers to let Shastri stay. Indeed, he was welcomed with open arms by everyone!
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.”
Even today, these words etch the humanitarian value of a being on this planet. These divine words substantially portray the life of a noblewoman who relentlessly sacrificed her entire life to the upliftment of a thousand lives. Mother Teresa sacrificed her entire life for these stigmatized and orphaned people, shedding every sectarian view of society. One day while she was walking along the road, she saw an old man in a pitiful state. She asked him, “Who are you and where is your family?”. “I have no family. I’m untouchable, and no doctor will help me,” replied the ailing old man. From then, she decided to serve all the weak, lepers, and poor until her last breath. With tremendous courage, she visited the outcasted lepers to help them. By the mid-1960s, she opened a hospice for leprosy patients popularly known as Shanti Nagar (City of Peace)- a place where lepers could live and work.
The Missionaries of Charity established several leprosy outreach clinics throughout Kolkata, providing medication, dressing, and food. To expand her work on leprosy, Mother Teresa solicited support from the West and private donors. To create awareness regarding every leprosy initiative, she went to the government of the US and European countries for an ample amount of funds. Moved by her diligent work in raising awareness, the Government of India came forward to donate land for building lepers colony. In the early 80s, when the World Health Organization recommended multi-drug treatment for leprosy, she launched an awareness campaign to educate patients and medical professionals. With great efforts combined with divine love, India ranked among the leper-free countries in the World Health Organization charts. After all these years, St. Mother Teresa still spellbinds society with her unending love and hospitality.
Although India declared itself free of leprosy (which means case numbers are less than 1 in 10,000 people) in 2005, there has been a slight rise in infections in the last 5 years. The Indian government has committed to achieve the target of Leprosy Free India, initiating and implementing various strategies to eliminate this disease from the face of our country. Under the National Leprosy Eradication Program (NLEP), India has achieved enormous success in leprosy control and elimination. Leprosy case detection campaign (LCDC) was launched by the government of India in the month of March/April 2016. This campaign brought out approximately more than 34,000 hidden cases that were confirmed as on 17 February, 2017, and were put under treatment.
The fear of leprosy leads to stigma and discrimination. Due to a lack of understanding and knowledge about leprosy, there are many misconceptions about its transmission and treatment. The fact that most of the people with untreated leprosy end up with severe deformities and disfigurements has contributed to the stigma. There is nothing we can do to alleviate the severity of sickness, but we can spread awareness about the disease and its curability. Care, love and compassion is the most efficient cure for any ailment — we need only be willing to lend a hand to those who suffer.
Written by Divya Thomas, Gauri Mathur, Chriswin Harris and Preethi