Let them be seen

Hidden People
Review by Andrew Juma

OF THE major pandemics afflicting the world, leprosy is probably the one forgotten by mainstream society. Akin to polio, it seems an anachronism, a disease long thought cured and consigned to history.

A street dance in Nepal

A street dance in Nepal

However, the existence of The Leprosy Mission (TLM) and other organisations working to combat the disease reflects its resurgent nature.

Far from cured, leprosy continues to plague communities across the globe, especially the disenfranchised and isolated.

Current statistics show a new diagnosis occurs every two minutes, with two-thirds of new infections originating from the Indian sub-continent.

TLM is a worldwide Christian organisation founded in 1874 to provide medical assistance, care and community development to those affected by the disease.

TLM works in partnership with local governments, with programs designed to augment efforts. They try to reach those most in need.

The ‘Total Leprosy Care’ approach adopted by TLM stems from God’s command to help others. It aims to rebuild lives and reenergise communities.

This commences with an education process aimed at breaking social barriers to inclusion, as communities often shun lepers.

While encouraging early self-diagnosis, the treatment process also provides urgent medical intervention and educational tools.

The holistic rebuilding process helps reconstruct shattered lives and fractured communities.

The Hidden People documentary highlights the work of TLM in Timor Leste, Nepal and Nigeria.

It recognises the people who work for and aid TLM, and shows how they encourage and support people living with leprosy.

Freddy’s story in Timor Leste, just an hour from Darwin, illustrates the positive effects of TLM’s work at an individual level.

Although severely disabled by leprosy, Freddy leads an active life because of the care and support received from TLM. He helps others by teaching at the local school, made access-friendly by a grant from TLM.

On the other hand, the visit to Nepal highlights the immense challenges ahead in combating the spread of the disease, and the ‘whole-of-life’ methodology of TLM.

While the Multi-Drug Therapy subsidised by the World Health Organisation easily treats leprosy sufferers, it is difficult to reach all those in need.

The medication relies on early detection and continuous treatment – difficult for people in remote communities or those disabled from the disease. TLM tries to combat this by providing mobile clinics to take the medicines across difficult terrain.

For those able to travel, TLM set up a hospital in Anandaban offering treatment to at-risk or infected people. The hospital also performs remedial surgery to increase the quality of life for people disfigured by leprosy.

The organisation also supports performances by street artists to educate communities about leprosy, breaking social barriers. This is particularly successful since Nepalese culture has a strong oral tradition, making the process more effective than brochures or leaflets.

Furthermore, the CEDAR self-help program equips local communities with necessary life-skills and development opportunities to thrive. Therefore, once someone has received treatment, they have the opportunity to provide a living for their families. This rebuilds dignity and a sense of self-worth, while strengthening community bonds – people once shunned are now business partners or community leaders.

The tour of Nigeria is perhaps indicative of the desired end for the journey, with thriving, communities living in harmony.

The village of Oye, once a leper colony, is now a thriving centre where sustainable micro-finance schemes have allowed businesses to flourish.

Coupled with community education and engagement, Oye is a model for integration where the stigma attached to leprosy is broken.

TLM continues to support the local community through the provision of grants to fund sanitation projects and education facilities.

Hidden People provides valuable insight into the work of TLM Australia, and the plight of people suffering from leprosy.

Although easy to combat, leprosy is a complex disease that relies on a combination of factors – the bacteria thrive in areas of poor sanitation, afflicting those who cannot readily afford early detection screening or medical treatment.

This allows the infection to fester and disfigure sufferers, who are then ostracised because of their affliction. It is a vicious cycle.

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