Cases of leprosy are increasing around the world. There were 174,087 new infections reported in 2022, up 23.8% compared to 2021 (140,594 cases). The data, which emerged from the latest report from the World Health Organization, worries the Aifo-Italian Association of Friends of Raoul Follereau, champion of the rights of leprosy sufferers, whose 120th anniversary this year marks his birth. “Aifo’s commitment in the world focuses on interrupting the transmission of leprosy”, but the mission is also to “prevent disabilities and eliminate discrimination against those affected”. Enough stigma, is the association’s message: “Dignity and inclusion so that no one remains on the margins”.
Since 2013, new cases of leprosy have tended to progressively decline, albeit very slowly, recalls Aifo. However, in the last 2 years there has been a clear increase, after the decline in the annual number of new cases, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic which slowed down epidemiological surveillance activities and the diagnostic capacity of outpatient treatment centers. The 2022 report confirms that new leprosy patients are concentrated mainly in three countries: India (103,819), Brazil (19,635) and Indonesia (12,441). For some years, some native cases have been diagnosed in Florida, in the USA, due to contact with wild animals and in particular with the armadillo. This most likely triggered an increase in human-to-human transmission thereafter. 5.1% of new patients are children, with an increase in diagnoses among the youngest of 14.6% compared to 2021.
WHO’s disease elimination strategies focus on supporting treatment services to ensure early diagnosis and improve the quality of care. In fact, the number of people who present serious disabilities already at the time of diagnosis continues to grow (9,554 in 2022, +12.8% compared to 2021 when there were 8,469, more than the 7,198 in 2020). Finally, the report shows that several countries still report discrimination against leprosy patients, or have laws that allow discrimination based on the disease. “Precisely for this reason, and not from today, Aifo plans an important activity to raise awareness of public opinion and institutions – underlines the association – so that those affected do not suffer discrimination and are included in the communities in which they live. Since 2016 also WHO strategies include reducing stigma towards people affected by leprosy.”
In leprosy control projects, Aifo follows the Road Map 2021-2030 for the control of neglected tropical diseases, developed by the WHO and in line with the global strategy Towards zero leprosy 2021-2030. The objectives are: the significant decrease in cases diagnosed each year, the reduction of people with serious disabilities at the time of diagnosis, the decrease in the number of children affected. “The path towards a world without leprosy is long and presupposes various objectives to be achieved through constant and collective work – states Giovanni Gazzoli, Aifo doctor expert in tropical diseases – It is necessary to interrupt the chain of transmission of the disease, prevent disabilities caused by disease, promote and support the social inclusion of those affected, eliminating political, social and cultural barriers. We believe it is positive that the fight against the stigma linked to leprosy represents a priority for the WHO, as it has always been for Aifo. On the other hand, it is clear that the decline in new annual cases is progressive, but still too slow compared to what was expected and, as expected, increasing after the Covid-19 pandemic”.
“Aifo’s commitment in the world – declares the president of the association, Antonio Lissoni – focuses on interrupting the transmission of leprosy”, but also intends to “prevent disabilities and eliminate discrimination against those affected, beyond prejudice and stigma, promoting social inclusion to restore personal dignity to those who are not recognized due to an illness”. In the countries in which it is present, in line with the SDG 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, Aifo promotes a multi-sectoral approach which includes physical rehabilitation of people with disabilities, health education and information for the general population, socio-economic rehabilitation in favor of those affected and of their families.
Today – concludes the association – leprosy is still an important health problem in various countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where precarious socioeconomic conditions persist which favor the transmission of the disease. In the future it will be a question of promoting integrated actions with the control of other neglected tropical diseases. “Aifo also mobilizes every year in Italy. Next January 28th the 71st World Day of Leprosy Patients will be celebrated, and with ever greater conviction – assures Lissoni – Aifo will do its utmost not to lower the spotlight on this curable disease, whose chain of transmission in the most vulnerable countries is still active and must be stopped immediately.”