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Liberia Health Campaign Battles Stigma of Leprosy


Health workers in Liberia say it has been difficult to battle leprosy in the country and treat those who have it, because of the stigma associated with the disease. It has long been a local belief that the illness - which deforms the victim's skin, fingers and toes - is a mystical thing, and not something that can be cured by science. Health officials say that is beginning to change because of a new education campaign. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar with additional reporting by Prince Collins.

"I have seen some people who had leprosy and they carry them into the forest and their family would just go there to feed them," recalled leprosy patient Paul Boduo. "That is what they used to do to leprosy men."

Paul Boduo, a leprosy patient at a Monrovia clinic says he remembers when families would carry their loved ones with leprosy into the forest and leave them there.

Director for the Leprosy Control Program Larwuo Gwesa says the disease has been difficult to treat, because people often try to hide it as long as possible, afraid of being abandoned.

Gwesa says the campaign teaches that leprosy is a disease that can be treated with medicine.

She says she believes the message is reaching people based on the number of family members who are coming to leprosy centers to visit victims.

"Before then when you had leprosy people do not visit you, but because of what we are doing, carrying out massive health education, people are visiting their patients," she said.

Gwesa says this means a lot to the patients.

"Through health education we are carrying out, people are coming to realize that if you have leprosy you can still be loved," she added.

Patient Boduo says having support from family and community is critical for leprosy victims who often can no longer provide for themselves.

"When you got leprosy you cannot work for yourself," he said. "You cannot do anything for yourself. This disease is very, very dangerous. Something you were able to do, it makes you not able to do it. And you need a supporter to support you. Without a supporter you will die."

Boduo says he is happy about the campaign to battle the stigma, because he feels like he lost his whole life when he got leprosy.

"This leprosy disease is not a disease that allows you to do any other jobs for yourself, even farming," he added. "I am a farmer, since many years ago I have not cleaned around my cocoa farm since and now all of the cocoas are left in the bush and now I am in Monrovia. Without a brother I would not live."

There are more than 200 leprosy clinics in Liberia. Health officials say it is hard for the medical system, which was nearly non-existent after years of civil war, to manage all of the cases.

They say the effectiveness of the campaign is also evident by the number of people who have come to clinics to receive treatment. About 430 new cases were reported in the first six months of this year, more than the number reported in all of 2007. Officials say it is not an increase in instances of the disease, but rather a reduction of the stigma that has encouraged people to come forward.

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