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Ivory Coast Lepers Combat Stigma

Sunday is International Leprosy Day, and in the Ivory Coast people suffering from the disease are using the day to fight negative prejudices about leprosy.

Children practiced a song and dance at the Raoul Follereau Institute in preparation for International Leprosy Day celebrations. Most of the children here have leprosy, and are at the institute to be cured.

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease that can cause festering wounds and skin deformities. It is still endemic in Ivory Coast and in nearby African countries, as well as in southern Asia.

The founder of the Adzoupe center is Raoul Follereau, who created World Leprosy day in 1954 in an effort to combat the stigma against the disease.

Djedjiro Thomas, 34, came to the center for treatment four months ago. He says he initially kept his disease a secret from his family because many lepers are rejected by their relatives.

"The problems of the leprosy are not known by the people. When I contracted this [leprosy], the family doesn't know. When I come here I don't tell to my family that," he said.

The United Nations World Health Organization says half a million people in the poorer areas of the world are infected by the disease annually, which is now treatable with a four-month course of antibiotics. But if the antibiotics are not taken soon after the disease is contracted, some effects of the disease remain.

Here in Adzoupe, there are signs education about the disease has been a success. A local taxi driver, Gbocho Maurice, says he is not afraid of living near lepers.

He says they are men like him, and that he lives with them, and that they are always together.

The World Health Organization has set the goal of eradicating leprosy in 2005. But achieving that goal may be difficult. Health professionals say it is hard to provide treatment in areas, like Ivory Coast, that are torn by fighting.