In a typical case, Muhammad Shafiq Siddique, 16, came home one day to find his bedding thrown into the street and knew his time was up. He recalls that his family didn’t accept him and their village people did not want him there. He was very hurt so had to go, recalls the 67-year-old part-time Urdu teacher. He now lives in a concrete hut in Tahirpur, a government appointed leprosy colony on the outskirts of North Delhi.
Like many of his neighbours, Siddique is cured. But his physical appearance of a misshapen nose, hands and feet, and the social stigma the disease carries prevents him from living outside the colony.
Around 5000 families call Tahirpur home, making it the largest of India’s over 800 colonies.
Now the government is rolling out the world’s first leprosy vaccine in Gujarat and Bihar, with a plan to implement it nationwide in the future.
Prof Gursaran Prasad Talwar first developed the MIP vaccine in the 1980s at the National Institute of Immunology, an autonomous state-funded institution under the government’s Department of Biotechnology.
In 2005 the institute carried out field trials in Uttar Pradesh where 24,000 people were vaccinated. The results were promising, with 68.6% protected for four years, and 59% protected for 8 years. In the same year, the WHO declared leprosy officially eradicated. For India this declaration was little short of disastrous, as the Mission in India ‘fell off the radar’
Since 2005 leprosy has been integrated into the general healthcare services, which means they never went out to look for cases. Few people went for treatment and when they did it was often too late.
MIP vaccine is part of a new attempt to eliminate leprosy said the Indian Council of Medical Research which is working with the government.
But vaccination is only part of the solution. Sanitation must be improved too. Dr Sengupta believes that in rural areas the disease can be transmitted to the water and even live in the soil.
Unfortunately the myths and misconceptions still prevail.