By Bianca Iboma-Emefu 

World Leprosy Day is observed on the last Sunday of January every year to increase public awareness of leprosy or Hansen’s disease. 

Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms, legs and skin area of the human body.

To commemorate the 2023 World Leprosy Day, the advocacy campaign is themed “Act now, end leprosy.” This year’s theme calls attention to three key messages.

Elimination is possible: We have the power and tools to stop transmission and defeat the disease. Act now: We need the resources and commitment to end leprosy. Prioritize leprosy elimination.

The founder/executive director of Voice of Humanitarian Aid Foundation (VOHAF),  Franca Emekobun, said that  “proper education and skill acquisition training for children from Oko-baba community would be a great pathway to breaking the cycle of poverty. Resources, commitment needed to end the disease.”

Emekobun disclosed this during the get-together fun party, characterized with a walk for the Leprosy community, in order to celebrate their day. Leprosy remains one of the leading causes of deformity and physical disability from a communicable disease, affecting individuals.

She advocated “the rights of people affected by leprosy in the community and, to combat the medical and social implications of leprosy, we need to advocate the equal treatment of persons affected by leprosy and to re-educate the public about leprosy by correcting historical misconceptions surrounding the disease.”

Emekobun called for urgent intervention and commitment to scale up efforts towards eradicating leprosy in the country.  

She said: “Leprosy is an old disease that has been present since biblical times. The patients usually have reduced quality of life, due to the stigma as well as the physical symptoms.

“Early detection and proper management can, however, prevent lasting debilitating sequelae and reduce the impact of disease on the patient and the community.

“Nigerians need to show love and care to people affected by leprosy rather than stigmatising or discriminating against them and their family members.”

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Emekobum said that God has given the foundation the mandate to rehabilitate and reintegrate people affected by leprosy and their family members back into the community where they have been neglected.

“Leprosy is not a curse, it is a disease and there are a lot of misconceptions about the disease. Leprosy is not hereditary, it is not a curse or taboo, it is a common disease that anybody can contact. “Early detection and treatment will prevent deformities so there should be no room for discrimination,” she remarked.

In addition to the disease’s physical effects, patients historically have suffered severe social stigma and ostracism from their families, communities and even health professionals to such an overwhelming extent that leprosy has been known as “the death before death” since ancient times.

She pointed out that the people of Oko-baba are marginalized and the non-availability of medical assistance is part of the challenges confronting persons affected by leprosy.

She added: “They find it very difficult to get access to medical facilities and by so doing, are exposed to other diseases and by the time those others diseases are detected, they are already at advanced stage that will attract deformity.

“What we are saying today is that, no more discrimination and stigmatisation. We should show care and love to people affect by leprosy and their family members. They have rights just like all Nigerians and we need to recognised this rights and promote their rights.”

Emekobun said a lot of resources are needed to make life conducive for those affected by leprosy.  The foundation calls for urgent intervention and empowerment for persons living with leprosy.

“For a long time, men and women suffering from leprosy in Africa, suffered twice. On one hand, a physical suffering because they are infected by leprosy and on the other, the moral and psychological suffering because they are excluded from the community because of their illness.

“There is stigmatization of the sick. In the past, persons affected with leprosy are rejected by society, but now things have improved, which is one of the greatest victories advocacy has done for leprosy patients,” she further said.

Emekobum added that at the risk of their lives, she and her team have been able  to create awareness of the need for a cultural renewal that educates consciences. “The testimony of the foundation remains a true source of evangelization for leprosy patients. Through the foundation, the light of the Gospel has penetrated into African culture to transform hearts,” she added.

“The  organization have been trying to reach the unreached in Nigeria. They have visited several Leprosy community across the country and have impacted them with food items, clothes among other assistance just to put smiles on their faces.This is why we came to celebrate with them; it’s a fun fair. Leprosy is preventable and treatable. Suffering from leprosy is needless,” she said.