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Durban - KwaZulu-Natal had 13 new cases of leprosy last year while more than 100 patients in the province are under post-treatment surveillance, officials recently revealed.
KZN, with Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, accounted for the bulk of the about 50 leprosy cases reported in the country each year, said Dr Frew Benson, the chief director of communicable diseases in the national Department of Health, at a Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital event recently.
Benson said 28 patients were on treatment in KZN while 125 were under post-treatment surveillance.
Leprosy is a contagious, chronic disease marked primarily by skin lesions. If left untreated it could create health problems and physical impairment.
“There are three stages – the first presents as a round or oval patch on the skin, which usually has no sensation,” explained Dr Nokubonga Khoza, a dermatologist. “Because it is a slow growing infection, taking between five and 20 years to present symptoms, it makes it difficult to identify the source.”
Khoza said it could cause nerve damage, which is common in the hands and feet.
“This means the patient loses sensation. They cannot feel temperature, pain or touch and (this) can lead to permanent disfigurement.”
This is what happened to Paul Mazibuko. Now 67, Mazibuko first presented signs of leprosy at the age of 10.
“My grandmother and uncle had it and they were sent away to hospital. It was like being thrown away. We never knew when you were coming back. In fact, you were lucky if you came back,” he said.
In an attenpt to keep him out of hospital, Mazibuko’s family burned his patchy skin with battery acid. “I had already lost sensation in my hand, so I didn’t feel anything,” he said.
For 10 years, Mazibuko had no symptoms. However, he kept burning his hand while working as a cook because he could not feel the heat. “Then I had a recurrence and had to be hospitalised,” he said.
Mazibuko described the hospital he was sent to as being no different to the “leper colonies” he had read about in the Bible.
“We were isolated and didn’t touch anyone. Even our money was disinfected before it was taken from us.”
Mazibuko said the disease had prevented him from holding down a job, as he would spend two to three years at a time in hospital.
Dutch Mkhize was an avid soccer player when he was diagnosed in 2008 after losing feeling on the right side of his body, down to his foot.
Mkhize said he thought he was having a stroke. “I had never heard of the disease before and when I was diagnosed, I didn’t take it well,” he said.
The budding soccer star said he had been in talks with soccer clubs at the time and the disease, which had permanently disfigured his leg and hands, had crushed him.
“It was only after I finished my treatment two years later that I started to accept it.”
Mkhize said while receiving treatment he started praying.
“I am now an evangelist and leprosy is my testimony,” he said. Had it not been for the disease, he would not have turned to God, he said, so he now regards it as a blessing.
Peter Laubscher, of the organisation Leprosy Mission, said that until 1977 a person diagnosed with leprosy had to be hospitalised for treatment.
“In 1984, the KZN Department of Health had the foresight to integrate leprosy treatment into the general health-care system,” he said.
This meant leprosy patients were no longer isolated and could receive their treatment at facilities near their homes.
Prior to this, “it meant leprosy patients often travelled long distances to receive treatment and they were regularly separated from their families for months, and sometimes years, with devastating consequences for them and their loved ones”, said Laubscher.
Even now, the stigma associated with leprosy isolated sufferers from society, even though it was not highly infectious, Khoza said.
Laubscher said that through collaboration, a world without leprosy was possible.
Dr Sibongile Zungu, head of the KZN Department of Health, said she wanted to put leprosy in the history books, where it belonged.
Zungu said the department was fully committed to implementing strategies that would result in the total elimination of leprosy.
She said a more holistic approach – over and above the multidrug therapy used to treat the physical symptoms – was needed.