Drugs to not cure leprosy. I can almost hear it now. Doctors, researchers and other leprosy experts who read this title are asking, “What’s wrong with this fellow? Doesn’t he know anything about leprosy? He’s supposed to be the president of American Leprosy Missions (ALM) and he doesn’t even know about the miraculous cure.” Of course we all know that multi-drug therapy (MDT) kills the bacteria that cause leprosy (a.k.a. Hansen’s disease). The World Health Organization (WHO) will even say we have “cured” over fourteen million people in the past decade. That is quite an accomplishment.
Dessie was abandoned by her
family when she got leprosy.
She now lives with a foster
mother in an ALM-supported
project in Ethiopia.
From a clinical perspective, people no longer have the leprosy bacteria present in their bodies, or at least the bacteria have been rendered incapable of infecting others. However, for many people that is far from being cured. This is because leprosy is not primarily a disease; it is a disability.
I must give credit for the title of this article to Dr. Carlos Wiens who works at the Mennonite Leprosy Hospital in Ascuncion, Paraguay. On a visit I made there early in my leprosy career, he told me that MDT does not cure leprosy. The more I thought about it, the more I believed it. Even if we could give MDT to every individual with leprosy, we wouldn’t even be close to curing the disease. And we would not have touched people where Christ wants us to touch them, in their hearts and souls. Many who have received the cure for leprosy must still deal with the stigma of having the disease. Current and former patients still suffer discrimination, marginalization, ostracism and sometimes outright cruelty. They are abandoned by family, friends and community. They are forced to leave home and live in hospitals, leprosy-affected communities and sometimes on the streets.
During her ministry on earth, Mother Teresa cared for many leprosy patients and recognized that the scars on their bodies were nothing compared to the festering pain within. “Being unwanted is the most terrible disease that human beings can experience,” she said. “The only cure can lie in willing hands to serve and hearts to go on loving them.” Mother Teresa’s evangelism was simple and effective: she loved as Christ loved.
For centuries the stigma of leprosy has been legitimized in codes and laws. People in some leprosy colonies have been banned from using the money in their land and instead are forced to use special “leprosy currency.” They have often been forbidden to marry. Their children have been taken away. It has separated wives from husbands. It has resulted in men losing jobs. The cure for leprosy requires a ruthless assault upon stigma. It requires a call for justice, a passion to “do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Those who have leprosy or who have once had the disease must be free to marry, to live wherever they desire and to live normal lives in their communities. That’s why ALM promotes community education, training of health care workers and regional and national media campaigns. This is why we seek to empower self-help women’s groups; provide scholarships to help children affected by leprosy; and support IDEA (the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement), the first international organization whose leadership is largely composed of people who have personally faced the challenges of leprosy. This is also why we work with religious communities.
Sadly, many false ideas associated with leprosy have their roots in the church. Happily, in many regions, the church is leading the campaign for love, acceptance and renewal. Jesus reached out to many outcasts of society, including those with leprosy. We can do no less. As Christians, we must reach out to those with leprosy, to those with HIV/AIDS, to the poor, to the disabled, to the disfigured and to the deformed. We must reach out with love that can open the door to the gospel. The WHO reports that nearly half a million people get leprosy each year. Seventeen percent are children. Many of these will experience what some cultures call “a living death.” Others will feel the sting of harsh judgment, being called “cursed,” “witch” or worse. Some, like 16-year-old Lidia in Angola, will be denied food and water when hospital nurses discover the real cause of her weakened hands and eyes. Others will rise triumphantly upon the wings of hymns and psalms delivered by Christian field workers and hospitals. They will experience healing. ALM celebrates one hundred years of service in 2006. We’ve ministered to countless thousands long before there was a cure for this dreaded disease. We have followed the steps of missionaries like Wellelsley Bailey, who reported from the Punjab in 1869: “In one row, a group assembled for worship. They were in all stages of the malady, very terrible to look upon. I almost shuddered, yet I was at the time fascinated, and I felt, if ever there was a Christ-like work in this world, it was to go among these poor sufferers and bring to them the consolation of the gospel.”
Rehabilitation and ALM
Leprosy carries with it additional disabilities beyond stigma. There is economic, social, physical, spiritual, psychological and emotional disability. All these areas require different interventions if a full cure is to be brought to the person affected by leprosy. Even after they are “cured,” many leprosy-affected people risk disabilities. They will wound their anesthetic hands and feet to the point of crippling. That is why we advocate effective Prevention of Disabilities (POD) programs in every country where leprosy is prevalent. Prevention of Disabilities has many benefits, one of which is the financial savings to the community when a disability is prevented.
ALM takes POD services to those affected by leprosy by offering training programs and materials to front-line workers around the world. This gives Christian healthcare workers interaction with patients (and more opportunities to share the love of Christ). Where governments are opposed to the gospel, we still fit prostheses, perform cataract surgeries and deliver food to remote leprosy villages. Where we can’t say his word, we can still be his hands and feet. Other needs must also be addressed.
Economic disabilities. Income generating opportunities, micro-credit programs and job training are needed. We must not simply give handouts, but help individuals to help themselves.
Physical disabilities. Trained surgeons and physical therapists who can deal with the physical consequences of leprosy are needed. We need referral centers where those affected can get treatment and medical care.
Social Disabilities. Education to alleviate the fears and misconceptions of family members and neighbors concerning leprosy is needed. Patients and former patients must be able to reintegrate into society and be accepted as a person with any other disease. This will only come when organizations focus on community development that is inclusionary in every respect.
Marta (Ethiopia) was not diagnosed
in time to prevent damage to her
leprosy-insensitive hands. She prays
that her daughter Meeta will have
a better life.
Above all, a balm must be offered for troubled spirits. This is why ALM works with churches and mission partners in Angola, Thailand, India and other places around the world. It is why Dr. Jacques Kongawi projects the JESUS video onto the side of his clinic van deep within the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo and why health workers in India gather for prayer under the shady baobab tree before beginning their village clinic. It is why missionary doctor, Jean Pierre Bréchet, leans close to his patients, touches them tenderly and asks them, “How can I pray for you?” It is why the ALM staff meets every week to pray for the projects and people who will be an extension of Christ’s love in word and deed. This is why we will continue to be Christ’s witness in regions that reject his word.
Sometimes, we grieve because our prayers cannot restore fingers and feet. Sometimes, we grieve because they cannot restore the boyhood a crippled, old man might have had if we’d only reached him sooner. Yet we continue to rejoice. Often, leprosy patients have told us, “I am glad I got this disease. If it were not for leprosy, I would not have come to this hospital. If I had not come to this hospital, I would never have known Jesus Christ.”
The Real Cure
Christian writer and surgical pioneer, Dr. Paul Brand, who served leprosy sufferers in India for many years, once said,
“The person with leprosy loses touch in more than one way. Not only does this horrible disease get into the nerves of his arms and destroys them and strangles them so that he can never again feel with his fingers, but somehow, and for some reason I cannot understand, this same germ gets between him and his friends, gets between him and his employer, gets between him and his community and builds a barrier so that a man who had experienced the loving warm greetings of his friends before, who had a job and could earn his living, finds that people turn away, that the children will run from him because they have been told by their parents they mustn’t associate with this man who has leprosy. He is treated with a superstitious kind of fear. And so it is that leprosy is a lonely disease.”
Dr. Brand believed that
“more than any other person in the world, the person with leprosy needs to be treated by somebody who will reach out his hand in the name of the Lord Jesus and touch him because, in that personal touch, backed by love and affection and devotion and compassion, we are mediating the love of Jesus Christ that this man, isolated by the world, should be welcomed into the fellowship of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We must reach out to people affected by diseases like leprosy with the love of Christ. We must be willing to touch them and love them into the kingdom. Bringing the real cure for leprosy will not be done until all the disabilities associated with the disease have been addressed. And it will not be done until all have heard the good news of the gospel from the one who can heal all hurts and wipe away all tears. It is only then that we can say leprosy has been cured.