By Linda Todd, Chief Executive, The Leprosy Mission Scotland

WE’RE all familiar with the term “leper” denoting a social pariah, one dictionary definition being “a person shunned for social or moral reasons”. Most people are much less familiar with the literal meaning of leper – someone who suffers from leprosy. Leprosy is an ancient disease that has a horrific impact on the individual.

I have worked for the Leprosy Mission Scotland for 21 years and the experience of seeing a teenage girl arrive at a hospital in Nepal to find out her condition was too advanced for treatment will always stay with me. I could not understand why a child should suffer like this in the 21st century.

Leprosy is a contagious bacterial disease which ravages the body through damaging the nerves on the skin. As well as developing the most appalling ulcers and muscle weakness, you lose the ability to feel pain and therefore detect danger: as a result people sustain all kinds of serious injuries. Furthermore, it’s the infectious nature of the condition that led to the word “leprosy” becoming synonymous with being ostracised, as people were turned out and cut off from their own families and communities. Such is the stigma surrounding the disease that the term “leper” has been banned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as being an extremely derogatory term perpetuating discrimination.

The last known case of indigenous leprosy in the UK was diagnosed in 1798 but it’s by no means consigned to the history books globally. According to latest figures released by WHO at the end of August one person is diagnosed with leprosy around the world every two minutes. More than 200,000 people globally were diagnosed with the condition last year; 16,000 of them were children.

This week we’re launching a campaign appealing to the Scottish Government and the Scottish public to support our fight against leprosy. We asked a volunteer with our charity, Dr Linda de Caestecker, to write a report to highlight the issue and action that needs to be taken. Linda walked into our offices as a medical student nearly 40 years ago and ended up going to a leprosy hospital for her summer elective. Now the Director of Public Health for Greater Glasgow and Clyde, it was her time working with leprosy patients in South India which led to her pursuing a career in public health here in Scotland improving the lives of Glaswegians.

Linda’s assessment sounds an alarm: “there are opportunities to achieve a leprosy-free world but only if we continue to devote resources and attention to the management and prevention of this disease…We are urging people to see it as a human rights issue. If urgent action is not taken now, past achievements in leprosy control could be reversed.”

This warning should concern all of us: people are suffering and we can do something about it. Leprosy is easily treatable with antibiotics if caught early but if left too late people are left severely disfigured and permanently disabled as limbs may have to be amputated.

My role with The Leprosy Mission Scotland has really opened my eyes to what life is like for other people in some of the poorest countries in the world. It’s wonderful to see someone cured of leprosy and go on to life a full life and in Scotland we can be part of this. We’d like to see the transmission of leprosy eradicated by 2035 and the key to this is early detection. With more financial support, leprosy really could be a thing of the past.