Stigma should not be seen as residing in an individual with a disease, but it resides in the society that has not found a way to be inclusive. We have a duty to diagnose and treat the stigma.
John Manton, The International Leprosy Association, 2007
Perhaps the first disease I knew of, thanks to my Illustrated Children’s Bible, was Leprosy. I was so afraid of losing my fingers and toes and being ostracized like the Lepers of Biblical times. I knew there was a cure though – knew this long before I learnt that TB medication was first used for leprosy.
Today is World Leprosy Day. Little children understand little, but they understand stigma in their hearts even if they do not understand it in their minds.
There are some great discoveries when it comes to Leprosy – or Hansen’s Disease: the only instance where an eponym is preferable in order to prevent patient stigmatization.
There was the discovery of the Leprosy Bacillus, Mycobaterium Leprae by Gerhard Hansen in 1873. He very nearly lost that claim to a young scientist called Albert Neisser.
It was extremely difficult to grow these bacilli in an artificial medium. So Hansen performed the greatest ethics faux pas I have heard of to date: he injected the bacilli into the cornea of a female patient with a milder form of the disease. Sorry, Doc, but I can’t defend you there. It was a crappy thing to do.
Another great “discovery”, if you will, is that these bacilli are of very low infectivity. Even conjugal partners can go years and years without getting infected. You would think this would reduce the stigma. It didn’t – it kind of still doesn’t.
Anyways, today is World Leprosy Day, and as long as stigma remains, it remains a day worthy of observance.