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Science and Medicine

2004-01-27

EUROPE/ITALY - “WHAT IS NEEDED IS A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE: PREJUDICE WITH REGARD TO LEPROSY MUST BE OVERCOME ” DR. DEEPAK TELLS FIDES

Rome (Fides Service) - Dr Sunil Deepak, born in Lucknow (India), a degree in Medicine and Surgery from New Delhi University, India, president of the London based International Federation for the Prevention of Leprosy ILEP, head of the Medical-Scientific Department of AIFO (Associazione Italiana Amici di Raoul Follereau), referent in Italy for the Charter of Nations for Health and a member of the Italian Observatory on Health. From 1988 to 2001 he took part in 20 joint missions with the World Health Organisation and other UN agencies in Uganda, Guinea Bissau, China, India, Eritrea, Brazil, and other countries. Since 1996, he is a consultant of WHO department for disabilities and rehabilitation and he has followed two specific initiatives for WHO: management of rehabilitation programmes for persons with disabilities in slums in India, Indonesia, Egypt, Kenya, Brazil, Bolivia and the Philippines; organisation of regional workshops for setting up rehabilitation services in Cambodia, Nepal, Lebanon, Nicaragua and Benin.
Shortly after the 51st World Day of Solidarity with Leprosy Sufferers, Sunday January 26, 2004, Dr Deepak was kind enough to answer a few questions put by Fides,

For years you have been engaged in the struggle to eradicate leprosy. In what does you work actually consist?
I am in charge of AIFO Medical-Scientific Department and my job is mainly to ensure that our projects follow updated international guidelines and that the people who work in leprosy centres, government paid, missionaries, lay volunteers, are properly trained. We support and collaborate with a number of international formation centres. We also hold our own courses. Last year in June in Bologna in collaboration with international organisations WHO, ILO and FAO, we held a course attended by participants from various countries.
Another aspect of my work for AIFO is valuation and monitoring. Monitoring consists of collecting information on the present situation and valuation is something specific which we do periodically organising visits of independent consultants so as not to influence reports.
A third aspect is research. One centre can carry out valid research for the local situation and as AIFO we think that keeping in contact with governments, missionaries, lay associations, volunteers all over the world, it is possible to research on the same protocol in different projects on different continents. This will lead to important results to define international guidelines not only fruit of local situations by with international validity.
As ILEP president I coordinate the work of organisations to provide economic and technical support, personnel, doctors so as to guarantee equal distribution of material and personnel. We also try to identify areas where leprosy is a serious problem but no one helps and then entrust the area to one of our collaborator associations.
I am also a consultant for the department of disabilities and rehabilitation of the World Health Organisation. My job is to promote programmes in rural areas which lack basic health services or rehabilitation programmes.
AIFO also works with integrated projects as well as those for treating and eradicating leprosy. In fact in many areas where we supply services for leprosy patients there are no other health services and we feel that the structures we support should be open to all in need of basic health care.

According to WHO 14% of leprosy patients are children. What can be done to help them recover and be reinserted in society?
In the past, some thirty years ago, at leprosy centres children were separated from the parents to prevent infection. Today this is no longer necessary thanks to modern medicine. With regard to prevention, the BCG anti TB vaccine gives children a degree of immunity against leprosy and it is the only available preventive treatment for children at present. It should be taken into account that children’s health is affected by other factors, poor feeding, hygiene, lack of education. Many children are denied schooling when it is discovered that they or family members have leprosy. Teachers must increase awareness among children and parents.

Are you satisfied with the results on Sunday?
I am satisfied although I realise that leprosy is not the only serious disease. There are many others and they will continue to exist even though we have the means to eradicate them. For example the 10 million children who die every year, the mortality rate in Sierra Leone where 327 out of every 1000 children (32%) die under the age of five.
These figures are shameful and therefore it is impossible to forget that besides leprosy there are many other terrible ills. I see leprosy as a sort of symbol of all situations of injustice, war, poverty and our approach is to promote integrated intervention.

What can be done to keep public attention on these diseases all the year round, not only one day in the year?
AIFO is lucky because it is present in Bologna and it has groups in 60 other places in Italy which promote initiatives such as in recent years the Charter of Nations on Health. These groups are activists, associations, individuals coming from more than 100 different countries working to promote projects to distribute medicines and focus on alternative forms of development. In the case of the 10 million children who die every year, 23% of these die of diarrhoea, caused not by lack of medicine but by lack of clean water!

Does Leprosy kill?
Fortunately not. But the problem remains that lepers are excluded. Very often the patients themselves decide to leave the family so their children will not be excluded from the work market because of prejudice. The main objective in this sense to change people’s attitude towards leprosy and those who suffer from it.
(AP) (27/1/2004 Fides Service; lines:89 words:1125)

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