Leprosy was thought to be eliminated in Papua New Guinea – but it’s back
By Doug Hendrie
At the start of the 21st century, Papua New Guinea declared that leprosy was eliminated.
Eliminated – but not eradicated. With the rate dropping below the World Health Organization’s elimination threshold – one in ten thousand – the nation’s government redirected scarce health money elsewhere. But leprosy never went away. Eighteen years later, leprosy is back with a vengeance in Australia’s nearest neighbour. The dreaded bacterial disease can take years – or decades – to incubate, with steadily worsening disability from nerve damage, such as a hand frozen into an unusable claw. But the historic scourge is now readily treatable with antibiotics, with excellent outcomes if treated early.
Retired GP Dr Colin Martin, the chair of Leprosy Mission Australia, told newsGP that ‘Leprosy never went away in PNG. It’s a complicated place, with all these valleys with poor access… The government is prioritising HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Leprosy doesn’t seem as exciting. But from an individual perspective, it’s a catastrophic disease due to the stigma, social dislocation and disability it causes.’
Now, leprosy is spreading again, with clusters in poor settlements on the outskirts of the capital, Port Moresby, and in remote villages. The disease is much more common amongst women and children, and is spread through cohabitation.
Logistics is shaping up as a major problem. There are caches of antibiotics stored in major cities, but getting them to remote river valleys or up into the misty highlands can be hugely challenging.
‘A person might walk a full day to a clinic to find that their medications for the next month aren’t there,’ Dr Martin said.
In PNG, the Leprosy Mission helps get people diagnosed and treated and gives vocational training to people with the disease. For people whose disease is caught late, the organisation gives supportive devices, arranges reconstructive …read more