World Leprosy Day – Sunday 29 January 2023
World Leprosy Day is observed on the last Sunday of January every year to raise awareness of leprosy. This particular date was chosen as a tribute to the life of Mahatma Gandhi who had great compassion for people with leprosy, and who was assassinated on 30 January 1948.
Many people might think of leprosy as a disease of ancient times, generally perceived as an illness to fear; destroying health and well-being,
Leprosy is mentioned many times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament. It is described as a scourge, a curse and a terrible affliction requiring cleansing. In three of the Gospels, we read how Jesus cured a man with leprosy after he begged Jesus to cure him.
In the Middle Ages, St Francis of Assisi followed in the footsteps of Jesus. As a young man, a chance encounter with a man with leprosy transformed his life forever. He left his wealthy family and comfortable lifestyle and began a new life of poverty. Francis followed what he felt was God’s calling. He rejected money and wealth and preached about returning to God and obedience to the church.
In more recent times, the Roman Catholic priest, Father Damien (1840-1889) now known as St Damien of Molokai, cared for leprosy outcasts on the island of Molokai. He arrived at the settlement on 10 May 1873, to find six hundred people with leprosy living in impoverished conditions. During his ministry, he shared his life with the community providing both medical and emotional support. He also built houses, schools, roads, hospitals, and churches. This incredible calling transformed the lives of those living in this once-lost community.
Many other notable individuals have dedicated their lives to caring for people with leprosy, including the nurse Kate Marsden (1859–1931) who founded St Francis Leprosy Guild, the philanthropist Raoul Follereau (1903–1997), who founded the leprosy charity Fondation Raoul Follereau and Mother Teresa of Pakistan, the physician, Dr Ruth Pfau (1929-2017).
What about leprosy now?
The World Health Organization recently reported that thousands of adults and children have been diagnosed with leprosy in 2021/2022. Many were diagnosed with visible disabilities such as blindness, clawed hands or lost digits, that will affect their lives forever. Moreover, it is readily acknowledged that millions more are undiagnosed, spreading infection within their communities or, living with its life-changing effects such as blindness, clawed hands, or chronic tropical ulcers.
Leprosy is also one of the most stigmatised diseases on earth. A leprosy diagnosis is a life sentence for some, often considered a curse from God and the result of sin. Many people with leprosy are thrown out of their homes, communities, or forced to leave their employment leading to a life of begging. Leprosy is still a legitimate reason to divorce in some countries. It is also a reason that anyone fearing that they may have caught leprosy, is too frightened to ask for a diagnosis.
Hundreds of leprosy communities still exist in remote locations throughout the world where people ostracised by leprosy, live out the rest of their lives.
As Archbishop John Wilson said in his address at St Francis Leprosy Guild’s 125th anniversary Mass in London last year: “if we think leprosy is a thing of the past, then we are sadly mistaken.”
The reality experienced by millions of people today, is that leprosy is a disease of modern times, and one that is still destroying lives.
Watch the video below, which has been produced by the St Francis Leprosy Guild for World Leprosy Day 2023, and find out how you can help.
Archbishop Wilson's thoughts on the need to eradicate leprosy
Watch the video below
St Francis Leprosy Guild is pleased to offer some useful resources for World Leprosy Day: