Despite widespread belief that leprosy has been stamped out, in Indonesia, India and Brazil the disease is proving difficult to eradicate. At Dr. Soetomo General Hospital in Surabaya, 20 new cases are diagnosed each day. “[Leprosy] is like an iceberg,” says dermatologist and leprosy specialist Dr Irmadita Citrashanty. “There are always new patients, it never ends.”
Citrashanty says leprosy initially attacks nerves in the hands and feet, leading to a loss of sensation. If untreated, ulcers, deformity and mutilation often follow. “People rarely die from leprosy but it really affects their quality of life,” she says. In East Java’s isolated rural communities, in particular, poor access to medical care and lack of knowledge that seeking continual treatment is essential contribute to the ongoing problem. One of the other issues, Citrashanty says, is that the social stigma surrounding leprosy stops people seeking treatment. “If they go to the health centre, they are afraid people will know they have the disease.”
The Vaseline Healing Project
The Vaseline Healing Project, a training and treatment programme, targets in-need populations like this village. It’s run by volunteer doctors including leprosy specialist Dr Irmadita Citrashanty. Education is key to stamping out the disease. “In the Western world, because hygiene is a given, skin conditions are not life-threatening,” says Bhupi Singh, executive vice president of humanitarian aid organisation Direct Relief. But for populations in low-income settings, skin conditions arise far more readily and, if untreated, can have a major impact on quality of life and can lead to infections.
One villager who has beaten the disease is 50-year-old Siti Zulaiha. She says she knew a decade ago that she had leprosy – her hands and feet were numb and she’d lost a lot of weight – but only learned it could be treated in 2014. “I could walk but I would fall down, and when I bit my finger, I couldn’t feel it,” Zulaiha explains through an interpreter. “I thought, ‘why me?’” Her parents were still alive when she was diagnosed with leprosy. “I felt bad that they had a daughter like me and I wondered if it was because my house was dirty that I got the disease,” says Zulaiha. She split up with her husband while pregnant with her daughter Kholilah, now 23 years old. Kholilah also has leprosy. The first indication was a wound on the sole of her foot that wouldn’t heal, along with numbness in her feet. Like her mother, Kholilah’s skin initially “turned black” after starting her year-long treatment and she felt shunned by some of the villagers. “People didn’t want to be close to me. One girl even pushed me but later she got the same disease.”
For 14-year-old Abdul, the journey is just beginning. When MiNDFOOD spoke to him and his mother during the Vaseline Healing Project mission, a volunteer doctor had just told them it was likely Abdul had leprosy and advised on where to go for treatment. Although they both know there is a cure, his mother’s eyes are red from crying and Abdul’s downcast eyes betray the shock he’s clearly feeling. “I am so sad,” he says.
Each of the five Vaseline Healing Project missions carried out annually consists of training local healthcare workers, providing free medical treatment and handing out Vaseline products to patients with leprosy and other skin conditions. The project provides petroleum jellies, dermatological care and other medical supplies to help heal the skin of those affected. Additionally, the project donates 5c from every product sold in Australia and New Zealand to help set up this clinic as well as together globally. Direct Relief also supplies about $1 billion worth of medical supplies worldwide each year.
Photography by Kemal Jufri