‘We are a step closer to ridding Mozambique of the world’s oldest disease as a sea change in attitudes gathers momentum.’
So says Bahadir Celiktemur, Research and Policy Manager at The Leprosy Mission.

People once banished because of leprosy, an entirely curable disease, are being welcomed home. The unconditional love they receive from the Leprosy Changemakers, on their journey to cure and inclusion, is inspiring them to help others. It is setting in motion a cultural shift and, as a result of bringing communities together to fight leprosy, villagers are also enjoying the road to prosperity.

Leprosy is a disease often thought to be confined to biblical times. There are, however, almost quarter of a million new leprosy cases diagnosed globally each year. For every person treated, there are a hidden 20 needing the cure.

Leprosy hides in remote villages like Zaina’s in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s troubled northern province. There are no doctors in Namatua and medical care is scarce. Without prompt treatment, leprosy can disable and even lead to blindness. Leprosy is also shrouded by fear and misunderstanding. People with the disease all too often face extreme discrimination.

Bahadir said: ‘Leprosy shouldn’t be a 21st century problem. It is every bit a social problem as much as it is a physical one. Despite there being a cure, the stigma I’ve witnessed is as fierce as you read in the Gospels. It truly broke my heart when Zaina told me everything that had happened to her.’

But, of course, that wasn’t the end. ‘Thankfully, Zaina’s story does have a happy ending. It highlights that it is fear and ignorance that see people like Zaina banished. We need to partner with communities in Cabo Delgado to bring a change in attitudes. I do find enormous hope and encouragement in Luke’s Gospel where mercifully Jesus gives us the ultimate example of how to heal leprosy. Not only does Jesus give physical healing to the man with leprosy who begged him to “make him clean”, but also emotional and social healing.’

Having watched life ‘in the rural communities of Cabo Delgado’ Bahadir says ‘This is our way forward. We need to bring about lasting change while working within a cultural framework’ – i.e. the cultural framework of the communities in Mozambique.

Bahadir explained that one of the reasons leprosy is so tough to eradicate is that its initial symptoms are not life-changing. Someone might notice a discoloured skin patch which is sometimes numb to touch.

‘It is a cruel disease as a person often delays seeking treatment. Without the cure, they are at risk of disability,’ he said. ‘It could be a case of not knowing the symptoms of leprosy that stops them from taking action. Or tragically a fear of being shunned by those closest to them.’

People affected by leprosy, like Zaina, are being trained as Leprosy Changemakers to recognise the early signs of leprosy. They are even going door to door in remote villages, telling people about the disease and that it is completely curable. They are a vital linchpin between the patient and medical services; a supportive friend on the journey to a cure.

The Leprosy Mission is now giving in-depth training to district health supervisors, who are employed by the Mozambique Government.  They are then able to diagnose and treat leprosy, and also learn how to teach self-care. It is vital people with nerve damage caused by leprosy know how to care for their hands and feet, if they have lost feeling.

Bahadir said: ‘We have a long way to go but the project is really working. I met a lady who had moved to a new village where volunteers had raised awareness. Her new neighbours told the lady that she had signs of leprosy. She was able to be cured and experienced no prejudice.’

Religious leaders and traditional healers are also joining the fight against leprosy. As well as appearing in the Bible, the story of Jesus healing a man with leprosy features in the Quran. Jesus welcoming this man back to the fold is an encouraging message for them to use in their communities. His actions challenge an ancient myth, still prevalent in Mozambique, that a person with leprosy is somehow cursed.

Traditional healers also have incredible power to influence their communities. Leprosy Mission teams all too often hear of someone with leprosy being prescribed a special bath by a traditional healer as a cure. When this doesn’t work, people then consider medical help, but it’s not easy to find. As a result, valuable time is wasted before receiving the cure for leprosy, leaving the person at risk of avoidable disability.

But things are changing. Traditional healers are being taught the early signs of leprosy. They can refer suspected cases to a district health supervisor. A fast diagnosis can be secured and, crucially, the cure given.

Bahadir said: ‘In Cabo Delgado there are 50 traditional healers to every doctor. They are the first port of call for someone with a health concern. The same goes for church leaders, Imams and village chiefs, who are all important community figureheads. Their voices will always be far louder than any Leprosy Mission worker coming in from Pemba, Cabo Delgado’s capital. That is why it is paramount for them to join the fight against leprosy.

‘I travelled to a village in Cabo Delgado where two or three young women had been diagnosed with leprosy that day. They had all been to a traditional healer a few years beforehand. One of the girls was just 15 years old. There was a boy who wanted to marry her, but she had refused him. The healer told her that the boy had cursed her and that’s why she had leprosy. She gave her a solution to put in a bath, but this did not cure her leprosy.

‘This story illustrates why it is so important to do all we can on a community level. We can’t just put it on the shoulders of the health supervisors, no matter how well we train them. We need to work with awareness of the local culture and acknowledge traditions.’

Bahadir said: ‘What we are doing here is emphasising community ownership and encouraging people to solve problems themselves. For example, the Leprosy Changemakers asked for bicycles so that they can travel to other villages to raise awareness about leprosy. The work is really giving hope to people that they can change their circumstances and lead healthier and more fulfilled lives.’

The Leprosy Mission’s new Unconditional Appeal will fund the building of community hubs. The hubs not only give a heart to a community but are a place from which to lead the fight against leprosy, where Leprosy Changemakers can learn to recognise early symptoms of the disease. Every villager can prosper through the work of a community hubs. Farmers can learn how to protect their crops from extreme weather and sell surplus produce to provide an income. The seeds of small businesses can be sown and nurtured here too, giving opportunities to young people and raising living standards in their community. The Unconditional Appeal has been awarded UK Aid Match, meaning every pound donated before 24 April 2021 will be matched by the UK government.


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