This week we were visited by Debbie Richards, a community fundraiser for LEPRA.
LEPRA is a UK registered international charity, which works with individuals and communities affected by some of the world’s oldest and most neglected diseases, including, but not limited to, leprosy. The charity was started 90 years ago by two doctors from London who went out to India. It is still a small organisation with low overheads, but now has our Queen as patron [very helpful for raising the Charity’s profile world wide] and last year improved the lives and livelihoods of 257,000 people and reached a further 1.5 million with health education. They achieved that by training volunteers and self-help groups.
LEPRA is currently concentrating its efforts on regions of greatest need in India and Bangladesh. We were told about Bihar, a state in north East India the size of Wales but with a population of 95 million people, most living in extreme poverty in circumstances in which bacterial diseases flourish. Leprosy is entirely curable if diagnosed early and treated with drug therapies. Thanks to the World Health Organisation, the necessary drugs have been available free of charge since 1995, but the challenges of getting patients to the drugs are immense. One factor is ignorance and prejudice – to admit to having leprosy is to risk being ostracised by the rest of the community. Some sufferers even commit, or consider suicide. People become trapped in a cycle of ill health, poverty, isolation and prejudice. Another factor is that many people have to walk over 60 miles to access the drugs, and the therapy to be effective has to continue for 12 months.
Debbie told us that some of her most successful fundraising starts in schools. She has a striking Powerpoint presentation to show pupils, which contained a slide indicating how relatively small funds can make a real difference: £9 for two pairs of shoes to help on the long walk for medicines; £23 for seed money to start a poultry business; £30 to run a health awareness campaign for a community of 500 people; £75 to train 15 village doctors to recognise the symptoms of leprosy, and £1,000 to fund a community health worker for a whole year.
Debbie recently inspired one 11 year old pupil to raise £750 by putting on multiple pairs of underpants in one go. That’s the community health worker covered for 9 months: we wait to see if any club members will attempt to beat the record.
Raj Menon gave the vote of thanks, in which he explained his enthusiastic support for the work of LEPRA. His interest was aroused when he learned as a student how Dr Paul Brand’s pioneering work in India on the damage leprosy causes to hands helped to develop modern hand surgery.