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What Have Head Lice Got to Do With Leprosy?

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Last week, I watched the reaction of my friend’s daughter when the subject of head lice came up in conversation. She was mortified that I knew she suffered from head lice – even though she knows that I’m a mother and have had the same issue with my own children in primary school. She knows that head lice are a common problem in New Zealand where we live and all over the world, and that you are more likely to get them when you have clean hair – but her heart and emotions ruled her head and she felt ashamed.

Multiply these feelings of fear and shame by a hundred, and we may begin to understand how many people feel when they are diagnosed with leprosy. They are given knowledge about the disease – that it is contagious, and that they caught it through no fault of their own; that they can be cured of the disease; but their emotions, conditioned by the attitudes of a lifetime, tell them otherwise and they feel shame.

This is one of the most important factors in the continuing battle to eradicate leprosy. Many people, on suspecting that they may have the disease, are reluctant to seek medical attention. They harbor a blind hope that it may just ‘go away’ and they are afraid of the reactions of friends and family. Sadly, leprosy doesn’t go away – it worsens with time, and eventually will result in nerve damage and disabilities that will stay with the sufferer for life.

The Pacific Leprosy Foundation strives to ensure that people throughout the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, are aware of the facts about leprosy – that it is a curable, contagious disease, and that good medical help is available for those suffering from its effects. Only through such knowledge becoming commonplace can we hope to overcome the fear and stigma associated with this ancient disease.

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