LIBERIA: Leprosy losing its stigma
KOKOYAH, 23 October 2007 (IRIN) - In Liberia leprosy has long been seen as a disease caused by mystical powers and one that cannot be cured by modern medicine. Health workers and villagers say that is beginning to change.
|Two people show their fingers, disfigured by leprosy, Central African Republic, 12 April 2007
For Flomo Kerkula, 55, the longstanding stigma has meant spending 20 of his 55 years at the Tuberculosis and Leprosy Rehabilitation Camp in the northern Liberian town of Ganta, Nimba County, which is run by a group of Roman Catholic nuns.
The camp provides free leprosy treatment and shelter for 200 patients who suffer from the disease. Their scars from having been infected with the bacteria known as leprae, which attacks the nervous system, include deformities of the skin, fingers and toes. The UN World Food Program provides food to the patients.
"I have been in this camp for more than twenty years and I have undergone treatment, but because of my disability my relatives have abandoned me. They do not care for me only because of my condition as a leprosy patient,” said Kerkula.
Kerkula whose fingers and toes have been deformed because of leprosy, said the camp is his only home. "I cannot go anywhere. My people in my village are not willing to accept me there. So I have to remain here."
Kerkula comes from Garpue town in Bong Country. Garpue and another town, Gbecohn, account for more than 50 percent of the leprosy cases reported in the country every year.
"If you had leprosy in any of our towns, we would not even greet you. No one dared be around you as it was taboo to even declare that you are suffering from leprosy,” explained Johnny Flomo, head of the elders council in Garpue town close to Kerkula’s hometown.
Stigma stops prevention
Lawuo Gwesa, head of the Liberian government's National Tuberculosis and Leprosy Control Program (NTLCP) said the stigma has not only made sufferers’ lives a misery, it has also made treating and preventing the disease difficult.
"People saw leprosy patients from their cultural stand point of view as cursed or possessed, so they were not taking leprosy patients to hospitals for treatment,” she said.
Now local activists working in Garpue and Gbecohn say attitudes towards the disease are starting to change.
"We always thought that leprosy cannot be cured in hospital because of our cultural belief that someone who has leprosy is cursed. Now our views are changing because medical doctors are educating us that it can be cured,” said Lorpu Kollie, a women’s leader in Garpue.
"We disregarded people suffering from leprosy before, but now, people with the disease are proudly coming out, without that fear that they would be looked down upon."
The changing attitude is being reflected in a growing number of people who are willing to come forward to admit they have the disease.
In 2006, only 418 leprosy cases were reported to health posts around Liberia, but between January and June 2007, 430 new cases were reported for treatment. “This shows how the rural people are now coming forward with leprosy cases. This was not the case a few years ago", said the NTLCP’s Gwesa.
Edwin Forkollie in Gbecohn Town said his younger brother was suffering from the disease since 2000, but did not tell anyone in the town about it for fear that he might be isolated.
"I took him for treatment after we started seeing community health teams coming to our town early this year with loud speaker microphones explaining that the disease can be cured and anyone suffering from it should to go the clinic for treatment,” Farkollie said.
"Now he is successfully being treated and by next month [November], the doctors said he would be discharged.”
Forkollie said he is using his brother's case to educate other villagers to always bring leprosy victims for treatment.
"Thank God, we have seen people in our town who had leprosy and were taken for treatment at the Garpue clinic where they were cured,” Anthony Forleh, a resident in Gbecohn Town said.
"This has always been our message to the rural people. Bring leprosy victims for treatment at the early stage, If you do not do so, they will face deformity on their fingers and toes,” Gwesa said.
Theme(s): (IRIN) Education, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition, (IRIN) Human Rights
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]