Leprosy and poverty, Rosa Koian’s thoughts about the return of a deadly disease

Eradicated many years ago, leprosy has re-emerged and is affecting urban communities impoverished communities

Sitting in the vehicle I could see her from a distance running half limping. After a few minutes I got out and moved to the front and waited for her.
As she approached she slowed down but continued towards me. I could see the excitement and understood her hopes. Then within two minutes just as she brought herself to us, she was just about to make a dash for her escape when I grabbed her and held her close to me.

Rebecca is a 15-year-old girl on the outskirts of Port Moresby who is spending her early years living in shame because of her condition. Growing up with leprosy she could see how she is losing her two feet and her right hand. Like all young girls she is worrying, a part of her is being deformed. She understands the many implications of this deformation and continues to live in shame.

Leprosy and poverty are like the left and right hands of the poor. One feeds off the other. In places where leprosy cases are high and stigma is an issue many recede to unbearable poverty levels. Where there is leprosy it is not hard to see disabilities but in leprosy you see these disabilities in the eyes, the hands and the feet.

If Papua New Guinea is listed as one of the poorest countries than it is not hard to find people living with leprosy in these statistics. In the eyes of the world as Papua New Guinea boasts modern infrastructure development, there is a group of people who will never have the opportunity to enjoy these services. They will never bring themselves to the centre because of their physical conditions. These people continue to live without proper nutrition, without water let alone clean water, and in crowded conditions – the factors leading to the re-emergence of leprosy.

In Papua New Guinea leprosy was successfully eliminated in 2000 however, in recent years it has re-emerged in Western Province, Gulf, Central, Sandaun Provinces and the National Capital District. World Health Organisation reports that at the end of the first quarter of 2017 356 new leprosy cases were recorded. Off this 140 are women and 89 children.

If not treated leprosy will cause disability in the hands, the feet and the eyes. The good thing for Papua New Guinea is that leprosy medicine is available in country and is free. However, not all people are aware of this disease and those who have been diagnosed often do not take their medicines. In many cases a K1 for a clinic book or a bus ride to the nearest health centre is a burden as that K1 is buying a meal for them. 

For Rebecca even though she wants to go to school she has not been able to for a number of reasons. In Port Moresby all schools demand school uniforms completed with shoes. It is asking a lot for orphans like Rebecca who must find the money to first feed herself and then to pay for her way to the Port Moresby General Hospital for checks. She has dutifully completed her treatment however the scar is there already and as she limps her way back to the river, she waves with ‘I hope you come back’. 

The Sustainable Development Goals lists ‘No Poverty’ as its number one priority and while a health approach has worked, the persisting leprosy presence in communities demand other approaches as well to help rid this disease and prevent disability. Better health, nutrition and sanitation practices are needed to help steer Papua New Guinea towards a healthier nation.

1 comment on “Leprosy and poverty, Rosa Koian’s thoughts about the return of a deadly disease

  1. Tessie Tahiti Soi. OBE

    Thanks Scott for highlighting this side of life for our vulnerable disadvantaged and yes we see high rise buildings and roads being built with millions of Kinas but the social services and welfare state of our vulnerable keep on being pushed to donors, churches, civil society and NGO’s.
    There needs to be a boost in the Dept of Community Development as social welfare services are very much needed as money coming through LNG royalties etc will widen the gap between the rich, the poor and the disadvantaged.
    Leprosy is one area that has been forgotten, not the treatment but the after care after the limbs have been deformed as you have rightly pointed out.
    HIV/AIDS is also one that is creeping back into our statistics as we see its ugly face appearing through another level.
    Mental disabilities, caused by trauma, abuse of substances are continuing without proper rehabilitation services that our government should address.
    Children diverting traffic in town and not at school.
    Disabilities services are making an impact but are still struggling to gain recognition in accessibility and opportunities for employment as a lot of them continue to beg for survival.
    It would be wonderful to have the policies that have been drawn up in the past and any in the present to do with all the above be researched and presented in a forum for like minded people whom can make a difference in reaching some solutions that can help our people.
    Is it that hard that we as educated and a very rich country cannot help our own people? or is it that we are very greedy and self centered that all we care about is making ourselves rich and trying to justify ourselves by saying “we worked hard and who cares, because we did it on our own!!” Food for thought! TS.


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