Cameroon is seeing a resurgence of leprosy, the bacterial infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage. Cameroon health authorities, on Sunday's World Leprosy Day, said infections have jumped by about 50% since 2018. Leprosy patients say, just as in ancient times, they are shunned and neglected.
Cameroon two decades ago announced that it had eliminated leprosy, but around 200 cases continued to be reported each year.
In 2019, cases of the bacterial disease, which damages skin and nerves, increased to 270 and last year jumped to over 300.
Ernest Nji Tabah, the permanent secretary of Cameroon’s National Committee for Leprosy, says a number of Cameroon’s health districts have been reporting outbreaks of the chronic but curable condition.
"About 70 new cases have been reported in the southwest. We have hot spots in regions like the North, the Adamawa, the Southwest, the Northwest," he said. "People think that leprosy is a spell, it is divine punishment, it is caused by witchcraft, it is hereditary and so on. Leprosy is none of these."
Tabah was attending an event organized by the aid group Circle of Friends Cameroon for Sunday’s World Leprosy Day.
Aid groups handed out small gifts of food, soap, and toiletries to 30 leprosy patients at the Jamot's Hospital in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé.
Patrice Essolla, 51, says they never received such attention as most families abandoned relatives with leprosy.
He says they need more assistance because they have been rendered helpless by leprosy. Essolla says communities should stop thinking that leprosy patients are witches and wizards and instead give care, support and comfort the patients need to recover from it. He says they are poor and need help — not the mental torture some families inflict on them.
The Cameroon Baptist Convention’s Center for Hope helps care for leprosy patients in the northwestern town of Mbingo.
The head of the center’s leprosy department Fomban Oliver says Cameroon was too quick to declare the disease eradicated.
Speaking via a messaging application, he says Cameroon shouldn’t have closed some treatment centers and stopped education on the disease.
"If it is possible for the government to reinstate the treatment centers, that will be wonderful. If we do not do that, something alarming is going to happen," he said. "In the field, there are no longer leprosy inspectors or supervisors or those controlling leprosy. Even the new nurses and the new doctors that are up now, they know nothing about leprosy and if something is not done in the nearest future, the increase will be alarming."
The Health Ministry official in charge of leprosy in Yaoundé, Dian Ndjock, says they are encouraging all suspected cases to be taken to hospitals.
She says the government will never neglect the suffering of leprosy patients.
Ndjock says patients are treated and given food free of charge in four specialized centers and that people with the disease can be rushed to any of the 380 district hospitals in Cameroon. She says civilians should stop stigma and social exclusion of leprosy patients.
The U.N. reports every year over 200,000 new leprosy cases are detected globally with India, Brazil, and Indonesia accounting for more than three quarters of infections.
The World Health Organization says in the Africa region case numbers have dropped by 42% since the year 2000 but about one million people have leprosy induced disabilities.