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Scourge of leprosy, a disease of the poor, returns to PNG


PORT MORESBY - Sitting in the car I could see her in the distance – running, half limping.

After a while I got out and moved to the front of the vehicle and waited for her.

Rebecca slowed down as she approached but continued towards me. I could see she was excited but, just as she came close, she turned as if to dash away and escape.

I grabbed her and held her close to me.

Rebecca is a 15-year-old girl who lives on the outskirts of Port Moresby.

She is spending her early years living in shame because of her condition.

Growing up with leprosy she can see how she is losing both of her feet and her right hand.

She is worrying about being deformed. She understands the implications of her predicament and lives in shame.

Leprosy and poverty feed off each other. In places where leprosy is widespread, there is often unbearable poverty. Where there is leprosy it is not hard to see disability but it is not only in the hands and feet, it affects the eyes.

Globally, Papua New Guinea is considered to be a poor country (two in five people live in poverty) and it is not hard to find people living with leprosy in these statistics. In fact the incidence of the disease is on the increase.

PNG boasts of its modern infrastructure development but there is a group of people who will never have the opportunity to benefit from these services because of their physical condition.

These people continue to live without proper nutrition, without clean water and in crowded conditions – prominent factors leading to the re-emergence of leprosy.

In Papua New Guinea leprosy was announced as being successfully eliminated in 2000 however, in recent years, we have seen it resurface in Western, Gulf, Central and Sandaun provinces and in the National Capital District.

The World Health Organisation reports that at the end of the first quarter of 2017, 356 new leprosy cases were recorded. Off this 140 were women and 89 children.

If not treated leprosy causes significant disability in hands, feet and eyes. The good thing for PNG is that the medicine to cure it is available free.

However not all people are aware of the disease and those who have been diagnosed often do not take their medicine. In many cases the one kina for a clinic book or a bus ride to the nearest health centre is a burden as that kina may buy a meal for someone.

Even though Rebecca wants to go to school, for a number of reasons she has not been able to.

In Port Moresby all schools demand school uniforms, complete with shoes. This is asking a lot for orphans like Rebecca who must first find money to feed herself and then to pay her way to Port Moresby General Hospital for check-ups.

She has dutifully completed her treatment, however the scars are still there and, as she limped her way back to the river, she waved at us with a ‘I hope you come back’.

The United Nations’ sustainable development goals list ‘No Poverty’ as the number one priority but the persistent presence of leprosy in PNG communities demands that we do more to help rid our society of this disease.

Better health, nutrition and sanitation practices are needed to help steer Papua New Guinea to be a healthier nation.


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Joseph Popo

Keith, thanks for this article.

As a TB clinician I also took care of leprosy patients as well and on the frontline in National Capital District I see that leprosy is re-emerging into the country.

I have registered over 100 new leprosy patients at my clinic.

Michael Dom

Thank you Rosa Koran, for this very critical article.

Good writing. Urgent topic.

Corrupt government. Diseased people.

Daniel Kumbon

Fr Roche, the other places where leprosy patients were looked after were Gemo Island near Port Moresby, New Hanover in New Island, Yagaum and Daigul in Madang.

Last year, I went to Yampu with five elderly former APOs or Aid Post Orderlies who had worked at Yampu many years ago.

They proudly told me how they had worked hard to eradicate the disease.

A week later, one of the former APO’s died. I still have his photograph.

The other four still remain of whom one is the father of our Chief Surgeon here at Wabag General Hospital, Dr Timothy Pyaku from Sari Catholic Mission near Wabag.

Garry Roche

The Seventh Day Adventists had a leprosarium at Togoba in WHP and Catholic church had one at Yampu in Enga. (There were probably other places in other provinces.)

These greatly helped those with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) at a time when lepers were often treated in isolation from other sick people. I remember a Dr Robson who did great work at Togoba.

As mentioned by Will Self, nowadays leprosy can be cured and it is not in fact very contagious and there is no need for separate places for treatment of leprosy.

One hopes that a re-invigorated health care system can do more to combat the sickness.

Philip Kai Morre

Lepers are people created in the image of God and we have to give unconditional love to the poor lepers with deep affection, feelings and a special bond to this group of innocent people who have become outcasts through no fault of their own.

We look after a lot of this suffering people through care and support and came to realise that, want I have done is a blessing. You never know, angels could transform into this sort of people to test your faith like St Francis of Assisi with his encounter with a leper, kissed him, feed him and within a moment the leper disappeared but he was an angel.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This is crazy.

You've got cholera, typhoid, and TB and now leprosy making a comeback and those fat arseholes in parliament can't get their noses out of the trough long enough to do something about it.

Peter O'Neill and his government are killing PNGns.

Will Self

Leprosy - or Hansons Disease - is one of the hardest to catch and the easiest to cure - yet it still exists.

Just consider if you or your children developed the disease - and you depended on the Department of Health as your saviour.

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