India says it is close to conquering leprosy, a disease that once afflicted millions of
people in the country. India's efforts to defeat the disfiguring disease are part of a global campaign launched by the World Health Organization in 1991.
Leprosy still exists in India. But the authorities say the number of cases has plummeted from more than four million in the 1980s to a little more than 100,000 at present. With its population of more than one billion, that means India has less than one case for every 10,000 people - the level at which the World Health Organization labels a disease "eliminated."
Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss says the dramatic reduction is proof of India's commitment to fighting the disease.
"This 'elimination' is just a milestone for us, because we want the world to know we are committed and we are serious and we are on target to eradicate leprosy," said Ramadoss. "We are going to continue with the same vigor if not even more vigor."
Leprosy, which dates back at least as far as biblical times, is not fatal. But the infectious disease can lead to severe disfigurement, and social stigma usually follows.
A campaign led by the WHO to eliminate leprosy led to a dramatic worldwide drop in the disease in the last decade. The program was launched in 1991 after multi-drug therapy made it possible to cure victims of the disease. Nearly 10 million people have since been treated, and most countries declared the disease eliminated by 2000.
But leprosy persisted in several countries, including India, Brazil and Madagascar, with India alone accounting for nearly half of the worldwide cases.
The WHO representative in India, Salim Habayeb, says India's size, combined with old prejudices, created several obstacles to the effort to wipe out the disease.
"It is the logistics. It is harder to reach everybody in the periphery," said Habayeb. "And also there is stigma and discrimination that drives people underground, and they suffer in silence without mentioning that they do have leprosy. But things have improved dramatically, especially when awareness was raised that leprosy is indeed curable, so people started coming earlier, before any deformity appears."
However, health experts warn that India must not lower its vigil, because leprosy is "down but not out." They say it could take up to 25 years before the disease can be completely eradicated, and they say prevention and treatment campaigns must not lose momentum.