We arrived at Premananda Leprosy Hospital in Kolkata, India on January 13, 2011. After walking up several flights of concrete stairs, we reached a room filled with chairs and a small white board, reminding me of the classrooms back home! A man greeted us and asked us what we knew about leprosy. We replied with, “A disease affecting the skin,” but our understanding stopped there. A lecture was given to us, which cleared up any misconceptions and judgments we had regarding the disease. We learned that leprosy is widely feared in India and has led to these patients becoming ostracized in society. When leprosy first became an epidemic in India a reverend had to declare each leprosy patient clean before they could return to society, much like in biblical times. Although this is not practiced today, these patients are still stigmatized. Much of this has to do with the misconceptions surrounding the disease.
The lecture painted a clear picture of the disease and expanded our knowledge base. Next, I will explain some highlights of the lecture. Leprosy is a caused by a bacterium that affects/damages the nerves of the body. The signs and symptoms present in such a patient include hypopigmentation, which are areas of the skin with less pigment, and loss of sensation, making patients unable to feel in certain parts of the body. It is common for patients to develop further complications due to loss of nerve function, including wounds, ulcers, deformities, and loss of limbs. Furthermore, it is contracted through sneezing; from one’s nasal mucosa to another’s nasal mucosa. Treatment consists of medication, which makes the patient not contagious and eventually cures the disease, a fact that I think is widely unknown. However, whatever damage has already occurred will remain. There is little understanding of the disease process in India, and I can say in the US as well. Many people perceive this disease to be highly contagious, which is untrue. Following normal precautions will prevent this disease from spreading, and isolation is not required. However, the damaging affects of this disease make leprosy patients highly visible in the community and easy to avoid.
Once the lecture concluded, we were ready to tour the facility and visit the rooms of leprosy patients. As we walked into the rooms we were greeted with, “Namaste,” and their hands went up as if in prayer. We observed these patients’ ulcers, amputated limbs, and hypopigmented skin. They showed us their symptoms and deformities voluntarily. It was impressive to witness their openness to share their disease with complete strangers. Personally, I felt slightly uncomfortable to be in their space; but after seeing their wide smiles and welcoming gestures, I remembered how meaningful it must be for someone to share their space when they are commonly feared.
This facility strives to educate leprosy patients, offer them the necessary medications to combat their disease, prevent further complications due to any remaining nerve damage, and encourage acceptance within the community. It integrates other diseases within the hospital to decrease stigma. Most leprosy patients are unable to pay for care, so they are only charged the amount they can afford whether that is nothing or one tenth of the cost. It is such an admirable hospital located in a country with high rates of leprosy compared to other countries; the world has approximately 200,000 new cases of leprosy each year, while India alone has 133,000 of those cases. It is largely unknown why so many people get leprosy here, but Premananda is one facility that offers support and care to these stigmatized patients and is addressing the current issue of acceptance. It was a valuable learning experience that showed that these individuals matter in a society where they are ignored.
Posted by: Megan Godwin