The Federal Government recently raised the alarm over the increasing cases of leprosy among Nigerian children. The Minister of State for Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, who disclosed this at the 2019 World Leprosy Day, observed that 2,442 new leprosy cases were reported. The minister also revealed that the National Tuberculosis (TB) and Leprosy Control Programme (NTBLCP) notified the ministry about the development in 2017.
According to him, 184 or 7.5 per cent of the cases were children while 361 cases or 15 per cent had acquired irreversible disability because of late presentation at health care facilities. Ehanire also stated that 522 new leprosy cases were reported in 2018, out of which five per cent were children and 13 per cent were with disability.
The minister pointed out that stigma and discrimination against persons affected by the leprosy and their families remained a major challenge and stressed that there were many wrong beliefs about the disease.
We recall that the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed the Global Leprosy Strategy 2016-2020 to strengthen efforts for leprosy control at a global level. Similarly, the Ministry of Health domesticated the document and launched a five-year National Leprosy and Buruli Ulcer Strategic Plan (2016-2020) in 2016.
According to medical experts, leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. It mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes.
It affects people of all ages. The disease is curable and early treatment prevents most disabilities. The disease is transmitted mainly through spread of nasal secretions of patients infected by Hansen’s bacillus. It can also be transmitted through inoculation into broken skin.
Available statistics from the global health agency show that 211,973 new cases of leprosy were reported globally in 2015. Not less than 213,899 new cases were reported in 2014 and in 2013, 215,656 new cases.
In Nigeria, 3,500 people are diagnosed with leprosy every year and about 25 per cent of patients having some degree of disability. Persons affected by the disease are still being stigmatised and discriminated against owing to myths and superstitions associated with the condition.
We laud the government for raising the alarm on the increasing cases of the disease but decry its spread among children, the future leaders. The number of children affected so far is alarming and everything should be done to tame the spread of the scourge.
Government should provide enough drugs for care of those affected. All new cases must be promptly reported in government health facilities. Treatment centres must be established in all the states of the federation as well as the 744 local government areas.
Since “Ending Discrimination, Stigma and Prejudice” is the theme of the 2019 World Leprosy Day, we urge the Federal Government to step up efforts geared towards stopping discrimination against people with leprosy and promote inclusion.
Civil society groups and Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) involved in leprosy awareness should enlighten the people on the need to end discrimination and stigmatisation of people and communities suffering from the disease. At the same time, the Federal and State health authorities should collaborate to ensure that the disease is controlled before the 2020 target.
Government must aim at achieving zero disabilities among new paediatric patients and a grade-2 disability rate of less than one case per one million people by 2020. Government should prioritise health issues by allocating at least 15 per cent or more of the national budget to health. The present budgetary allocation to health is so meager to address the nation’s mounting health challenges.
Being a curable disease, there is indeed no need to discriminate against those suffering from the condition. Let there be more public education on the causes, symptoms of the disease as well as curative measures. All the stakeholders in the health sector must concertedly work towards halting the menace.