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What is leprosy and why is an outdated law on it in Jamaica being dropped?

In the past, people with leprosy had to ring a bell to warn of their approach (Wikimedia Commons )
In the past, people with leprosy had to ring a bell to warn of their approach (Wikimedia Commons )

A stigmatising law that was enacted in Jamaica 73 years ago when there was no cure for leprosy is to be repealed.

Current health and wellness minister Dr Christopher Tufton has submitted a one-page bill to revoke the statute that has become irrelevant, as the disease is said to be eliminated in Jamaica.

In the document, Dr Tufton claimed the disease in Jamaica has decreased to less than one case per 10,000 people.

He said: “It is considered to have reached elimination status and is no longer a significant public-health risk.”

But what is leprosy, and why was the outdated law stigmatising?

What is leprosy?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.

It is likely transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contact with untreated cases.

Once transmitted, it may have an impact on the nose lining, skin, eyes, and nerves (nasal mucosa). It can cause disfiguring skin ulcers and nerve damage in the arms and legs.

Leprosy has been known to affect all ages - from early infancy to very old age.

The condition can be cured with early detection and care. In the past, it was regarded as incurable, and patients often became social outcasts, but it can now be treated with antibiotics.

What is the outdated law and why is it being dropped?

The leprosy act of 1949, also known as the Hansen’s Disease Act, was formed to govern and establish provisions for the care and custody of those who have leprosy, meaning anyone suffering from the disease were required to be confined to a leprosarium or leper home.

On top of this, leprosy sufferers worldwide face discriminatory laws, impacting their right to work, travel, and marry.

People across Jamaica, India, Thailand, Nepal, and Singapore can also be forcibly removed from residential areas and segregated from society, even if they have been cured.

Rudyard Spencer, who was the health minister at the time, indicated in 2011 that he intended to repeal the Leprosy Act, but no action was taken to do so.

Since the development of multidrug therapy (MDT) in the early 1980s, the illness can now be successfully identified and treated in the community, which eliminates the need to isolate anyone suffering from the disease.

According to Dr Tufton’s document, the prevalence of leprosy in Jamaica has significantly reduced to less than one case per 10,000 of the population and, according to WHO data published in 2020, there were zero leprosy deaths in Jamaica.