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Mission to aid leprosy victims in Nepal

JENNY LING
Last updated 05:00 04/04/2014
Sarah Farmer
SOCIAL STIGMA: Sarah Farmer is grateful to have travelled to Nepal to help leprosy patients.

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Imagine being admitted to a hospital where the doctors are afraid to touch you.

That's the reality for leprosy patients in Nepal.

Some have even been kicked out of their homes and schools and shunned by family and neighbours.

Epsom resident Sarah Farmer witnessed the situation several times while travelling with The Leprosy Mission.

"People don't touch others with leprosy in Nepal," she says.

"They believe it's a curse but it's just an infection and it's curable.

"Even the doctors won't touch patients, even though they're educated.

"The stigma is so strong."

The Leprosy Mission says the disease is still a major issue in Nepal where an estimated 150,000 people are undergoing treatment.

The disease is caused by bacteria which attack nerves in the hands, feet and face. It can cause the fingers and toes to claw inwards if untreated. Leprosy can also attack the eyes, resulting in infections, cataracts and blindness.

But most sufferers can be cured thanks to multi-drug therapy that became available in 1982.

Farmer, who is in her second year of a pharmacy degree at Auckland University, wanted to help The Leprosy Mission after hearing stories from friends who had been on similar volunteer trips.

She spent 11 days at the Anandaban hospital, 16 kilometres out of the capital city Kathmandu, observing surgeries and meeting patients, staff and doctors.

The hospital provides care for all stages of leprosy, from diagnosis and medication to reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation and restoration to patients' communities and homes.

One young woman, who had walked two days to get to the hospital, was kicked out of school because of her deformed hands.

She needed reconstructive surgery so she could return to her studies.

The surgery was successful and Farmer is confident the woman will be welcomed back into her village.

There are still five million people with leprosy worldwide, she says. "It is totally possible to eradicate it in our lifetime, which is probably another reason I got involved," she says.

"It really excites me that we can have such a massive impact on these people's lives."

The Leprosy Mission ethnic communities adviser Mike Sheppard says poor, cramped living conditions exacerbate the problem.

"If you're diagnosed and given the triple therapy, within a day you're non-communicative - you can't infect someone with it.

"But because of the stigma people are afraid to go and seek help. Once the disease attacks the nerves the damage is permanent."

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