Myanmar is one of just 16 countries in the world still reporting more than 1,000 new cases of leprosy every year. Stigma and disability are still enormous problems there, as profiled in this recent Guardian article. The Leprosy Mission is working hard to transform lives there, but one of the most simple things we can do – and that you can play a part in – is treating people affected by leprosy as early as possible, curing them of the disease before disability takes hold.
Every time we meet people like Than Lwin, we remember why swift diagnosis and treatment is so vital. The 69-year-old developed leprosy about 40 years ago.
It all started with him being unable to feel his fingers; then he began to experience loss of sensitivity on his body. Unfortunately, this led to his torso being badly burnt while he was bending over an open fire – he simply couldn’t feel what was happening. He later worked in the fields but using a scythe to cut grass meant he cut off and damaged some of his fingers and toes, leading to him becoming severely disabled.
About 21 years ago he was finally diagnosed with leprosy when a medical team visited his village. The Leprosy Mission provided him with multidrug therapy (MDT). He had lived with the illness for 19 years at that point without knowing what was wrong with him, but was finally receiving the cure.
Before his diagnosis Than Lwin said he felt like he ‘just wanted to die’. Because of his disabilities, people did not want to come near him, even crossing to the other side of the road to avoid him. For much of his life he has been isolated and lonely.
“My saddest memory is when I offered a monk some food, just like other people do,” he said.
“The monk took the food but when he thought I was not looking I saw him throw it away.”
Now that stigma in his village has been broken down thanks to The Leprosy Mission’s work, he feels happier about his life. He has gained enough confidence to start attending community meetings and finally feels included.
He is also good friends with two other men affected by leprosy and the three regard each other as ‘brothers’, supporting each other and going to social events together.
Talking about when he was first diagnosed with leprosy, he told us: “Even though there was medicine I didn’t want to take it – I just wanted to die. Since you have helped me, life is worth living again.”
Sadly, some people affected by leprosy feel less hopeful about their lives. 39-year-old Ye Ye Shin developed leprosy aged 10 but was not diagnosed until several years later. She has spent most of her life carrying the burden of stigma alongside one of her brothers, who is also affected by the disease.
“I don’t want to get married because I don’t want to bring trouble to other families,” she told us. “When two of my siblings got married their in-laws were not happy to learn that their children had married into our family.”
Ye Ye Shin’s other brother is a farmer but she does not work with him as it makes her ulcers worse. She sometimes goes to social events in her village but doesn’t venture further afield because she is worried how people will react to her.
She dreams of one day having her own business but so many things have made life tough for her – her disabilities, her family’s poverty, and the terrible stigma of leprosy.
There are many more people in Myanmar who have yet to be diagnosed with leprosy. For them, the cure can mean a life free from much of the pain suffered by people like Than Lwin and Ye Ye Shin – the stigma, the struggle to earn a living, the sadness.
Did you know that as little as £24 can cure someone of leprosy and transform their future?