India – global superpower or poverty stricken?

Nevertheless there is hope.

By Charlotte Orson in Kolkata

Dr Helen Roberts diagnosing Akash Singh (eight) with leprosy
Dr Helen Roberts diagnosing Akash Singh (eight) with leprosy

I didn’t know what to expect from my first trip to India.  I certainly was aware of the poverty and the fact the country is home to a third of the world’s poor.  But with the media pushing India emerging as a global superpower with its own space programme I was perplexed as to what scenes would greet me.    I needn’t have been puzzled.  Arriving in the centre of Kolkata couldn’t have been more similar to walking onto the film set of Slumdog Millionaire.  (There is an M&S nearby I’ve heard but really cannot picture this.)  The bustling streets of central Kolkata are a kaleidoscope of colour, noise and activity.  Although lined with an array of independent shops, business spills out onto the streets with people cooking, trading, eating, dancing, dressing, shaving and begging while skilfully avoiding the trams, bicycles, rickshaws and swarms of cars all frenetically beeping their horns.  (Am yet to find out what the procedure is in a real horn-beeping emergency.)An Aussie once told me that the Australians tend to divide the English into two categories – those who live in stately homes while the other half settled in more Coronation Street-style housing in back-to-back streets of terraced homes.  In India the contrast between rich and poor is far starker yet coexists side-by -side.Leprosy tends to affect the poorest of the poor and, although only mildly infectious, thrives in confined and squalid conditions.  The disease is so very stigmatised that it is little understood, even by some health workers.  Knowledge of The Leprosy Mission’s Premananda Hospital is hazy for many of Kolkata’s millions.  People often don’t reach the hospital until their bodies are ravaged by the disease.  They are barely able to walk due to nerve damage and subsequent injury to their feet and can be virtually blind as a result of leprosy.  Only then does someone remember Premananda – often dropping them on the doorstep through sheer fear of catching leprosy by entering the hospital.One by one, the unfazed staff at Premananda take these broken people and begin mending them.  Multidrug therapy – simply a course of antibiotics – clears them from disease while medics go about tackling disabilities incurred as a result.  Reconstructive surgery can see a patient walk again and a painstaking procedure of transferring muscles used for chewing to the eye area can see a patient regain their ability to blink, therefore protecting their eyes from further damage and complete blindness.These procedures see patients confined to a hospital bed for weeks.  For those having double sight-saving surgery, it can see their eyes bandaged for a minimum of three weeks while being fed only liquids due to the surgery utilising chewing muscles.  But this is a mere fraction of the time required for emotional healing.   Whether it is being outcast by a family or a sharp comment from a neighbour, all affected by leprosy carry the scars of hurt and rejection.It was with both sadness and joy that I witnessed eight-year-old Akash Singh being diagnosed with leprosy this morning.  Akash lives in a children’s home for youngsters of leprosy-affected parents (interestingly sponsored by Australian cricketer Steve Waugh).  The children usually see their parents in the school holidays but benefit from a safe home and education during term-time.  The youngsters are also monitored for the early tell-tale signs of leprosy and a group of those suspected to have the disease are brought to Premananda Hospital each month.

Today it was Akash’s turn to be told he had leprosy after staff at the home spotted a white patch on his cheek and left thigh.  Happily a course of antibiotics (admittedly taken for six months) will rid him of the disease and he is unlikely to suffer the same consequences as his parents.

The Indian authorities have previously been reluctant to acknowledge the prevalence of leprosy.  Therefore it was encouraging to learn the Government has commissioned The Leprosy Mission to carry out diagnosis and treatment of the disease in 50 out of 144 allocated ‘wards’ in Kolkata in 2013.  Those who cannot be treated in their communities will be picked up and taken to Premananda Hospital for more specialist care.

Let’s pray the Urban Leprosy Programme is successful and will see more patients like Akash being spared the consequences of this cruel disease.

Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.  For you will spread out to the right and to the left.’ Isaiah 54: 2-3 (NIV)


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