A helping hand
Leprosy a.k.a. Hansen’s Disease is a chronic illness that affects the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract. It is also a disease that historically caused people to be shunned or locked in leper colonies with no care. I say historically but the shunning still occurs. Look at the definitions for a leper by Merriam Webster’s
dictionary, for example:
1) a person affected with leprosy
2) a person shunned for moral or social reasons
I once had dreams, just like you.
The lady in this photo had been continually passed by as people turned their heads on their way walking to the Dalai Lama’s temple. Ironic, isn’t it? When the photographer spoke with her, she insisted on taking off her scarf, smoothing her hair and looking her best for the photograph.
The bacteria that causes leprosy, M. Leprae, multiplies slowly with an average incubation time of 5 years while symptoms can take as long as 20 years before showing.
Hands of fate.
Myth has it that the limbs fall off but that is simply false. What happens is that they become so deformed that in many ways, it looks as if a foot or a hand has fallen off.
I have my gift of new shoes
Luckily, 95% of the world population is naturally immune to the leprosy bacillus. For those who are not, the current belief is that the disease spreads through nasal mucosa rather than skin-to-skin contact. As you can see in some pictures, the noses may be deformed and they have one of the highest quantifiable amounts of bacteria in their mucus membranes.
Deformity of the foot caused by leprosy
Interestingly, in countries with a high percentage of leprosy like many Asian countries and India especially, the cultural form of greeting is not shaking hands. This may be why (along with natural immunity) that these countries have less cases than might be expected since leprosy travels the same route as the common cold, i.e. through the respiratory system and by shaking hands, a major culprit.
Obviously, if a nasal droplet is near you and you breathe it in, then you will be at risk, otherwise it is not that easy to catch especially with a healthy immune system, adequate nutrition, clean water, etc.
Getting ready for her new shoes
In Cambodia, some of these images were from an outdoor “clinic” if it can be called that, where new shoes were donated and basic treatment given.
Treatment of some skin lesions
Leprosy is actually curable if patients are able to be treated. Multi-drug therapy (MDT) is the treatment of choice and the World Health Organization has made MDT available to all patients worldwide.
There are a couple of issues though. The stigma and shunning of lepers mean many hide it rather than go for treatment in the early stages when it is most easily cured and of course, they have not yet suffered the worst of the deformities. Some local governments are also quite bad about distributing medicines to the villages, but the situation seems to be getting a bit better.
A beggar with leprosy
Begging is often the only job left to those who suffer from advanced leprosy. That or entering a lepers hospital like the one below, where the photographer was told the child would stay the rest of his life (I find that hard to believe given the treatment options but perhaps it is worse for him outside with his deformities).
I am a boy, just like any other, who wants to play football and go to school
Leprosy, like any chronic and crippling disease, is bad enough. Sadly, we as a society, often shun, walk past or otherwise try not to see the souls in the crippled bodies. These images today hopefully let you see the people behind the illness rather than just the illness itself.
We can pray that one day, leprosy will be eradicated and will be nothing but an arcane footnote to the history books. In the meantime, we can treat those afflicted with this disease and others as the human beings they are rather than the illness they have. Here’s more information on how to help.
Special thanks to Blanche Gauri, Steven Kim, Steve, Marc Shandro and Moyer Photos for granting permission to use their images for this article.