World Leprosy Day is annually observed around the world on the last Sunday of January. The day was initiated in 1954 by French philanthropist and writer, Raoul Follereau, as a way to raise global awareness of this deadly ancient disease and call attention to the fact that it can be prevented, treated and cured. Doctors and other medical professionals spend time talking to the public about how to recognize the symptoms of leprosy. Seminars are held around the world to address the problems faced by leprosy patients and to find ways to reduce the social stigma faced by them.
The day aims to raise awareness of a disease that many people believe to be extinct, when in fact around 210,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and we believe millions more people are living undiagnosed. The last Sunday in January was chosen, as the third Sunday from Epiphany from the Catholic calendar. The Catholic Church then reads the story of the Gospel where Jesus meets and heals a person with leprosy. The term ‘leper’ was once used to describe a person affected by leprosy but, over the years, the word has become associated with anyone who is outcast, seen as a pariah or someone to be avoided.
Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases known to humankind. It is also known as Hansen’s disease, named after Norwegian physician, Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, who debunked the prevailing notion of the time that leprosy was a hereditary disease. He showed that the disease had a bacterial cause instead. For thousands of years, people with leprosy have been stigmatized and considered to be at the extreme margins of the society. The aim of World Leprosy Day is to change this attitude and increase public awareness.
You can still become infected if you frequently come into contact with an untreated person, through droplets from their nose and mouth, although the potentially disabling disease can now be cured. The WHO says leprosy was “eliminated” as a public health issue by 2000 — fewer than one in 10,000 people around the globe have it — with the help of an effective drug treatment developed in the second half of the 20th century. The disease was once feared as a highly contagious and devastating disease,” the CDC says. Now, however, the disease is very rare and easily treated. Early diagnosis and treatment usually prevent disability related to the disease. When left untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Leprosy has been forgotten by society – leaving the people affected ignored and isolated. By raising awareness around the world, we can tackle the stigma which often stops people coming forward for treatment, and raise funds to help beat the disease. We want to reduce this stigma and work towards a world where people know that leprosy is curable and doesn’t have to mean a life of social isolation. This day is meant to help people living with the disease to understand that it is in fact a curable disease and to know that other people care about them.