Leprosy is an ancient disease and it is known to have existed in India from prehistoric times. It is considered that the spread of this disease to other parts of the world such as China, Egypt, Middle East, and Europe and subsequently to America took place through trade and war.
This disease finds mention in ancient Indian texts such as Atharva Veda (2000 BC) and Laws of Manu (1500 BC). The condition of the disease and suggested therapeutic procedures are covered in Sushruta Samhita (600 BC). There were laws in ancient India which prohibited people from keeping contact with leprosy patients and punished those who married in to these families.
The therapy of the ancient times was not consistently effective in controlling and providing relief to the patients. People were afraid of the possibility of catching the disease through contact. Due to the disfiguring nature, its onset was associated with sin. Hence the persons affected with the disease were treated as outcasts and banished from society. There are even instances where a king who got affected by this disease had to leave his throne. Loss of social position and expulsion was applicable to royalty also.
During the colonial period, British Government enacted the Leprosy Act of 1898 in India which was used to segregate people affected by the disease. Many charities and local governments established institutions to provide social, religious and medical services for the affected people. The law could not be strictly enforced due to lack of infrastructure. When effective multi-drug therapy for leprosy became available, the Leprosy Act was repealed in 1983.
Under the government-sponsored National Leprosy Elimination Program, treatment of leprosy was integrated with general health systems in 1997. This has helped in reducing the incidence of this disease in the country. From a figure of >50 cases / 10,000 population in 1981 to <1 case / 10,000 population was archived in 2005. However, India happens to be home to approximately half of world’s leprosy patients.
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