People with leprosy suffer not only from physical disease but also from harmful social stigmas which can lead to mental illness, Cardinal Peter Turkson said on Sunday.
In a message for World Leprosy Day on Jan. 31, the cardinal encouraged people to include those sick with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, in their communities and relationships.
“Not everyone will have the skills or expertise to cure Hansen’s disease physically, but everyone is capable of promoting that culture of encounter which brings about healing and the mental well-being of those affected by this distressing illness,” he said.
Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that a lack of participation in society can have a “profoundly negative impact on self-esteem and a person’s outlook on life, ultimately leaving the person vulnerable to mental illness.”
This can be true especially for people with leprosy and their families, he said.
Hansen’s disease is very rare today and, with early diagnosis, it can be treated and cured.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around two million people worldwide are disabled due to Hansen’s disease. The countries where the disease is most widespread are Tanzania, Nigeria, Mozambique, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Brazil.
Though Hansen’s disease is now known to not be as contagious as once thought, it still has a strong social stigma attached to it.
Turkson said, “multi-drug therapy has proven successful and effective in curing leprosy and has afforded much hope. Health care, in addition to treating the physical ailments of the person, must also consider the social and psychological dimensions.”
“The health care community in particular, and society as a whole, offer a tremendous service to the common good when they help facilitate this process of personal integration for those who suffer from leprosy and their families,” the cardinal wrote.
French philanthropist Raoul Follereau established World Leprosy Day in 1954. He chose Jan. 30, the date of Mahatma Gandhi’s death, as the day for the event in honor of the Indian leader who reached out to leprosy sufferers.
Pointing to the story of Jesus Christ’s healing of the lepers in the Gospel of St. Luke, Turkson noted that “when Christ brings healing to the man with leprosy in the Gospel, he applies the salve of human dignity in addition to the physical remedy.”
“It becomes an event that touches the entire person and the effects are far reaching,” he continued. “When the Church speaks of God’s generous offer of salvation, that gift is described as both universal and integral.”
Explaining that many patients with leprosy experience social exclusion, depression, and loss of income, Turkson said that “promoting the inclusion of all persons in society and assuring integration in the community remain priorities.”
He quoted Pope Francis, who wrote in his recent encyclical “Fratelli tutti” that “every human being has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally; this fundamental right cannot be denied by any country. People have this right even if they are unproductive, or were born with or developed limitations.”
The cardinal ended the message by offering his respect and gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to healing people with leprosy.
“They show us, in very practical ways, that leprosy is curable, that human encounter can eliminate stigma, and that mental well-being is an essential part of integral health,” he said.
“May the powerful intercession of Mary, health of the sick, lead us all more completely towards the healing touch of Jesus Christ.”