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.