Health: “The fight to end leprosy has never looked more hopeful.”




In 2024 The Leprosy Mission marks its 150th anniversary. The baton to end the world’s oldest disease is now with a generation running the race with more tools and knowledge than ever before.

The earliest evidence of leprosy dates to 4,000 years ago. We also read in the Gospels of how Jesus cured people with this disease during his time on earth. Leprosy should no longer exist in the 21st Century as there has been an effective antibiotic cure since 1982. Yet this disease continues to blight millions of lives today. The lives of some of the poorest and most marginalised people on the planet.

Supporters and Leprosy Mission teams around the globe are calling on governments, philanthropic organisations, churches and individuals to join the race to end leprosy.

Chief Executive Peter Waddup explained that for the majority of The Leprosy Mission’s existence there was no cure for leprosy. Peter said: “All those who went before us could do, was offer love and practical care for those who had been cast out by their families and communities. There was, and still is, so much fear when a person develops visible signs of leprosy. Yet today, as well as an effective cure, we have a diagnostic test and undertake contact tracing. By doing so we can detect and cure leprosy in family members before they develop disabilities. There are also scientific advances in the pipeline that will hugely accelerate the race to stop the transmission of leprosy. We have better ways to heal ulcers and world-class reconstructive surgeons to help transform the lives of people disabled by leprosy. Crucially, there is a new generation of people affected by leprosy who are empowered to fight for their rights.

“Arm in arm with communities affected by leprosy, we want the 150th anniversary to be a launchpad to a world where no one is diagnosed with leprosy again. No one should live with a preventable disability caused by leprosy in this day and age. And no one should face discrimination just because they have this disease.

“The fight to end leprosy has never looked more hopeful and this is thanks to the incredible compassion and generosity of supporters. We believe that, with the right backing from governments, we can end leprosy. It is a disease that has haunted this world for too long and we are better equipped now than ever before to end leprosy.”

Peter explained that the lives of the founders of The Leprosy Mission, Wellesley and Alice Bailey, show that it takes a partnership to change the world. He said: “Wellesley and Alice were an ordinary couple raised during the potato famine in Ireland. Yet their lives were extraordinary when they followed a calling to help people suffering with a mysterious disease in India. Of course there was no cure for leprosy then and they did whatever they could to help these ostracised people living in terrible poverty. They were devastated when they had no option but to return to Ireland because of Alice’s failing health. But it was this change in circumstances that birthed The Leprosy Mission! On their return to Dublin the couple were asked to give talks about their time in India. A family friend volunteered to raise money so that they could help more people. From humble origins the charity has since cured and transformed the lives of millions of people.

“This story demonstrates that whether it is a surgeon restoring movement to limbs disabled by leprosy, or an elderly couple giving a couple of pounds when they can – together we are an incredible force for good.

“We praise our sovereign God for sustaining this mission through wars, pandemics and economic crises through the compassion of our amazing supporters. Wellesley Bailey famously said The Leprosy Mission was ‘born and cradled in prayer.’ One hundred and fifty years later, prayer remains at the very heart of everything we do. Each morning Leprosy Mission teams come together around the globe to thank God for blessing the work of our hands as we seek to end leprosy.

“Looking back at The Leprosy Mission’s history, we stand on the shoulders of giants. There are some incredible Leprosy Mission stalwarts. These include our wonderful late patron Diana Princess of Wales. Princess Diana made huge strides in destroying the stigma surrounding leprosy. She very publicly held the hands of leprosy patients, photographs of which were splashed across front pages globally. Yet it is the amazing stories of dedication and self-sacrifice among our supporters that touch me the most. I wish I could take each one to Asia and Africa, showing them the difference they are making to people every day.”

The Leprosy Mission Timeline

1869: A young Irishman, Wellesley Bailey, set sail for India to pursue his career. While there, he saw for the first time the devastating effects of leprosy and was inspired to take action. Wellesley’s fiancé Alice later joined him, and they married in Bombay Cathedral.

1874: The Baileys returned to Ireland due to Alice’s health problems. Together they began to tell people about the needs of people with leprosy. They started The Mission to Lepers, which we now call The Leprosy Mission. With the help of their friend Charlotte Pim, they set a target to raise £30 in a year. In the first year alone, they raised £600.

1880-90s: The Mission gave grants to other missions, so they could care for people with leprosy. It also opened its first hospital, Purulia Hospital in West Bengal, India. What started out as 29 outcasts sheltering under trees, today has grown into a hospital serving 70,000 people a year. Wellesley visited Burma to open the first Mission home outside India. At this stage, most of the income came from Ireland, Scotland, and England. Wellesley toured the USA and Canada to raise support there too.

1900-10s: Interest in the work grew and the Baileys travelled to China, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore, visiting projects, raising awareness about leprosy and asking for support. By the time Wellesley retired in 1917, the Mission had 87 programmes in 12 countries with supporting offices in eight countries. The annual income had risen to £40,000.

1920-30s: The Mission started early experiments with a treatment using chaulmoogra oil. While injections were painful and only a few were cured, this was progress. Once only able to offer refuge, The Leprosy Mission began to develop into a medical mission.

1940-50s: Mission doctors began experimenting with a new drug, dapsone. Although patients had to take the antibiotic for their entire life to manage their leprosy, this was revolutionary. Dr Paul Brand, a British orthopaedic surgeon, moves to India to teach at a hospital there. He encounters people affected by leprosy. Dr Brand became the first surgeon in the world to use reconstructive surgery on the hands and feet of people affected by leprosy. This is a technique used extensively today.

1960-70s: In 1965 The Mission to Lepers changed its name to The Leprosy Mission, to avoid the negative connotations of the word ‘leper’. By 1974, The Leprosy Mission’s centenary year, TLM had 30 of its own hospitals and leprosy centres, most of them in India. It also supported 90 different Christian societies and missions working in more than 30 countries.

1980s: In 1981, the World Health Organization recommended a new antibiotic treatment for leprosy; Multidrug therapy (MDT). This was the first effective cure and people were cured in as little as six months. The Leprosy Mission rolled out MDT programmes globally. From the late 1980s, under the theme ‘care after cure’, The Leprosy Mission rapidly increased its work to include social, economic and physical rehabilitation.

1990s: MDT was rolled out around the world. A target was set by the World Health Organization to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem by the year 2000. This was measured by a target of governments recording less than one in 10,000 people being treated for leprosy.

2000s: The global target was actually achieved, but unfortunately created a false sense of success. When the numbers fell below the one in 10,000 rate, governments redirected the money to treating other diseases. The number of new leprosy cases diagnosed began to drop following the Millennium, reducing to around 250,000 cases a year in 2008. They have plateaued at around this level ever since.

2020s: There is evidence[i] to suggest that in 2020 there were four million people living with untreated leprosy. This means for every person cured of leprosy today, there are 19 ‘hidden’ cases that need to be found and treated. Age-old prejudice, lack of knowledge and insufficient healthcare means leprosy continues to blight communities in the developing world. Our fight is to end the transmission of leprosy in our generation.

Main Photo Credit: Chief Executive Peter Waddup chats to leprosy patient Lawal in Nigeria about the difference a prosthetic leg has made to his life. Photo © Jeffrey Chukwu.

Sorted Staff Writer


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