BUENOS AIRES - Many people think of it as an illness of the past, something you see only in books and historical movies.
Wrong: Leprosy is a reality in modern Argentina, and the passage of time has not eradicated the stigma of the disease. Lepers are discriminated against at work and even by their own families out of misplaced fear of contagion.
The Argentine Society of Dermatologists has just finished its 13th annual campaign for education and prevention on leprosy. This campaign is part of a larger effort to combat myths about the disease and inform the population of Argentina about the benefits of early detection.
According to the most recent statistics, there are 736 cases of leprosy being presently treated in Argentina, of which 354 were recorded in 2011, or nearly one case per day. Specialists estimate that at least three out of 10 infected people do not even realize they have leprosy. This means the number of actual cases could be over a thousand.
Jorge Tiscornia, a dermatologist at the Ramos Mejia hospital and director of the leprosy campaign warns that it is important to be aware of possible symptoms of the disease, like spots, changes in skin color, hair, or perspiration, and loss of feeling or numbness in the affected area. The problem is that “it’s a disease that doesn’t hurt” so most patients do not see a doctor until they have some kind of complication, and by then the disease is advanced.
In other cases, the delay in diagnosing leprosy can come from doctors who aren’t aware that the disease still exists, says Cecilia Medina, a dermatologist at a hospital in Buenos Aires.
Prejudice and discrimination
In addition, “the patient might think that he or she has leprosy but is afraid of being discriminated against,” says Tiscornia.
In the 30 years that he has worked with people suffering from leprosy, he has accumulated several examples of stigmatization that have wrought havoc on the patient’s social life, causing anguish and embarrassment. “A grandfather suffered because his grandson’s doctor said that he shouldn’t pick up the baby. A man abandoned his wife and kids when he found out that she was infected.”
That is why today one of the main goals of the doctor’s campaign is to “fight the prejudices. Today leprosy is a completely curable disease. We have antibiotics that can cure it in very little time. No one should be afraid to spend time with a patient, to drink tea with him or her or to let them pick up a baby. You have to spend a lot of time living with a patient to catch the disease, and even that isn’t a guarantee that you will catch it. Most people have a natural immunity to the bacteria that cause leprosy.” The most important thing, Tiscornia stressed, is early detection, to avoid damage that can affect peripheral nerves, internal organs or vision.
The education campaign has managed to decrease the prevalence of leprosy in Argentina over the past 13 years, but the number of new cases every year has remained constant, which means that the chain of infection has yet to be broken. Maria Molinari, the initiative’s coordinator, says that is because “in general, the population is not receptive. There is a sort of refusal to accept that this disease exists.”
“In literature, in the movies and in the Bible there are references to the fear of leprosy, and we are still fighting against those prejudices. Our goal is for a person suffering from leprosy to be able talk about it with the same ease as someone with hepatitis,” Tiscornia said.