Leprosy Mission Reports A Breakthrough In The Number Of Women Treated

Ahead of International Women’s Day on Tuesday 8 March

There is no medical evidence to suggest that men are more susceptible to leprosy than women.

Yet every year statistics published by the World Health Organisation reveals that more men than women are being cured of the disease. The latest data from 2020 shows that just 39 per cent of new leprosy cases diagnosed and treated were women.

The Leprosy Mission is helping to overturn this injustice in our outreach projects. At the very heart of communities, newly trained outreach workers are going door to door. They are finding the women who so desperately need leprosy treatment.

We are delighted to report that in 2021 there was a significant breakthrough in closing the gender health gap.

We are now two-thirds of the way through our three-year Heal Nepal project to find, cure and care for people with leprosy. Funded through the UK Aid Match scheme, with every pound donated matched by the UK government, the project finds hidden leprosy cases in remote areas of Nepal.

In some of the cultures in which we work, many women feel uncomfortable about being physically examined by a male health worker or doctor. This is why women volunteer health workers were recruited and trained in Nepal to detect the early signs of leprosy. A total of 3,011 women have been trained.

As a direct result 639 people were cured of leprosy in 2021. The household members of those treated were also checked for symptoms.

Many of the people identified were taken to The Leprosy Mission’s Anandaban Hospital for specialist medical care and help for emotional trauma. At Anandaban, some had surgery to restore movement to hands, feet and eyelids damaged by leprosy. Others were given mobility aids, including bespoke prosthetic limbs. We are happy to report that a total of 58 per cent of people helped by the Heal Nepal project in 2021 were women.

There is significant research to show that women are more likely to be deserted by their husbands because of leprosy than vice-versa. A woman affected by this disease can be seen as worthless. This is particularly the case when her disabilities prevent her caring for children and doing household chores.

Accessing treatment is more difficult for women. Often they must get permission from their husbands to see a doctor. In Nepal there can be such prejudice surrounding leprosy that, understandably, a woman hides the early signs of the disease. She does this to protect her marriage and family life.

Tragically a leprosy diagnosis often results in devastating consequences such as being cast out from her community and left with lifechanging disabilities. No longer able to support herself, she is left destitute.

A similar effort to address the gender inequality in leprosy treatment was made in Bangladesh. In the Meherpur district, 344 female and 303 male government health workers were trained during 2021 to detect the early signs of leprosy. In the early weeks following their training they went on to find 437 new cases of the disease, with women making up 50.8 per cent of those treated.

Head of Programmes at The Leprosy Mission, Sian Arulanantham, said:

Why should women be left living with leprosy longer than their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons? Their health is in jeopardy and they risk a lifetime of disability through no fault of their own.

It is both reassuring and exciting to see new data that shows men and women now finally having equal opportunity to the healthcare they deserve.

Written by: Charlotte Walker

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