MBINGO, CAMEROON - Leprosy and the terror it causes dates back more than 3,000 years. Today some 180,000 people have leprosy - most of them in Asia and Africa, said the World Health Organization (WHO). But despite the infection now being treatable, the fear and stigma remain. In Cameroon, Christian missionaries have created a haven in the northwestern part on the country for leprosy patients shunned by their communities or abandoned by their families.
Some 35 leprosy patients sing at the Center for Hope in Mbingo, in northwestern Cameroon. Among them is 64-year-old Tarla Chrisantus who said he hopes to see his children before he dies. He said he remembers his two children in prayer and even asked his pastor to pray for them.
Paulin Varsumin, 65, barely walks. She said she is not sure her family knows she is still alive. She said when she was brought to the center a very long time ago, nobody could imagine that she would recover from her illness.
The Center for Hope was founded in 1951 by Baptist missionaries when leprosy was a public health concern and misunderstood. Hundreds of patients were accused of witchcraft or being cursed with the affliction by God and abandoned here with damaged skin.
It was only in the 1970s that a successful multi-drug treatment was developed.
But Professor Tih Pius, who manages the Baptist church’s health services in Cameroon, said the stigma has not been wiped out.
"We are saying that their families should love them, they did not invite the illness, it came to them just like it can come to any of you the family member. And once we treat them, even if you do not have money for their treatment, please come and take them back home and take care of them, they are part of your family,” he said. “And to the state, I just want to said if there is anything to do to support them while they are in the hospital we would be grateful. Any little support will be appreciated. "
Leprosy is caused by bacteria and symptoms develop slowly. It can only be transmitted by close and repeated contact with nose or mouth droplets from an untreated person.
Health officials stress that perpetuation of fear makes it hard to diagnose and treat people successfully.
But even for those patients who have gotten the medication they need to end their suffering from painful skin sores and nerve damage to their arms and legs, they suffer from isolation.
Ngi Richard, administrator of the Center said they struggle to provide basic needs such as power.
"They are supposed to have light [electricity]. They are supposed to have a television. They are supposed to know what is happening. You know just to see the [TV] images is very encouraging,” Richard noted. “It is like they are cut off and that is why when they go up to the hospital, they do not want to come back because there is television in their ward."
The WHO initiated a leprosy elimination project in the 1980s and reported that by 2010, more than 14 million cases of leprosy had been cured. Several hundred thousand cases remain. Brazil, Angola, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania account for 75 percent of those affected.
The patients at Mbingo said they are cured but the affliction remains.