In recent years Covid, a coup and conflict have deepened poverty and wrought havoc on the southeast Asian country’s healthcare system. This “perfect storm” has given leprosy – an ancient bacterial disease which causes debilitating disabilities including claw hand, blindness and paralysis if untreated – space to spread.
“If you don’t find it, it will transmit to more people – and we’re not finding it,” one specialist doctor, who asked to remain anonymous due to the security situation, told the Telegraph.
Another healthcare worker based in northern Myanmar, where an outburst of fighting has recently broken out, added: “When we have access [to hard to reach regions] we are seeing leprosy cases, the symptoms are very obvious. In terms of public health, this just shows how much the system is gasping.”
Services ‘repressed by the junta’
Leprosy has long plagued Myanmar – the first specialist hospital opened in 1898 – but cases have gradually been declining. At the turn of the millennium, roughly 10,000 new infections were still being reported each year, by 2019 this had fallen to roughly 2,500, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Taking the latest figures at face value, this declining trend appears to continue; in 2022, 1,114 new cases were found. Yet this is a concerning sign, according to the WHO, as it shows how many people are going undiagnosed as the health system struggles.
First hit by Covid, the public system suffered staff shortages after many doctors and nurses resigned from public-run hospitals in the aftermath of the coup in 2021 to join the protest movement.
A patchwork of parallel services have since been repressed by the junta, which has restricted access to medicines in areas outside its control. In total, some 800 of more than 1,000 attacks recorded against hospitals and health workers in Myanmar have been launched by the military, according to Insecurity Insight.
Without access to treatment, leprosy patients’ conditions will deteriorate. But it also raises the risk of passing the bacteria to others.
“Leprosy treatment requires a consistent and sustained supply of medication, and any disruptions in the healthcare system can potentially impact the ongoing efforts to eliminate it,” the WHO said.