Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Myanmar - Govt plans national guidelines to combat ‘forgotten’ leprosy

Leprosy, the “forgotten disease”, is still raging in Myanmar, with about 3000 patients suffering from it. Despite measures taken toward elimination, the incidence has been unchanged for more than a decade, experts say.

According to 2015 statistics, 70 percent of leprosy patients in Myanmar are at risk of further infections. Children aged under 15 represent 5pc of sufferers, and about 14pc of the total patients suffer from severe, Grade-2 disabilities.

The People’s Health Foundation, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and Sport and the Mitta Arr Man Organisation, held a seminar on leprosy on August 26 in Yangon.

Health experts told the seminar that the number of patients had stabilised at between 2500 and 3000 for the past 12 years or so.

Dr Oke Soe, deputy director of the leprosy project at the public health department, said the ministry is planning to draw up national guidelines for combating the disease from 2016 to 2020. “We aim to complete the guidelines this year,”he said.

“Funding requests have been submitted to organisations supporting anti-leprosy activities, and the government has been implementing an awareness campaign,” he said.

“Nine patients out of 10 come to the health centre only when the symptoms are already apparent. That’s why so many suffer disabilities. For every 30 leprosy victims, two suffer a severe disability.”

Health workers’ biggest fear is the spread of leprosy among children, said Dr Myat Thida of the Leprosy Mission Myanmar. “The number of children coming to the clinics with leprosy that could lead to disabilities is very worrying. Every year, about 3000 patients come to the clinic. If we could go out and search in the community, we don’t know how many more we might find.”

Dr Oak Soe said 4-5pc of total new cases were under 15 years of age. Staff shortages meant that prevention activities in pockets of infection were hard to sustain. He added that 10-15pc of new cases involve a Grade 2 disability on the WHO’s 0-2 grading scale.

Dr Than Sein, president of the People’s Health Foundation, said, “Most people forgot about leprosy after the announcement that the disease had been eliminated.” That was why protection and prevention activities and programs had been weakened, he said. Victims of the disease failed to recognise its early symptoms, and did not know where the nearest health centre was located.

The WHO said in 2014 that Myanmar, with 2877 sufferers, was fifth in the world for leprosy cases. India, at number one, has 125,785 cases.

In 1986, when the WHO introduced multi-drug therapy to Myanmar, the number of registered leprosy cases was 222,209 and the prevalence rate was 59.3 per 10,000 population. Myanmar achieved its elimination target in 2003 when the incidence fell to less than one person in 10,000.

About 90 percent of patients come from Yangon, Mandalay, Sagaing, Magwe, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions and Shan State, said Dr Oke Soe.

Daw Thida, 75, who has a leprosy-related disability, said, “I developed the symptoms of leprosy when I was 17 years old. There was a white spot on my skin. The disease has cost me many opportunities in my life.”

Health experts say leprosy patients are still struggling with discrimination, in addition to their physical and mental distress.

Htike Nanda Win and Myint Kay Thi

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