11 June 2019 · Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy
Dr. Anil Kumar’s Vision of an India Without Leprosy
Dr. Anil Kumar is a man on a mission: an India free of new leprosy cases by 2030 is his goal. Those who work with the energetic and determined national leprosy program director have no doubt that his leadership and persistence, coupled with strong political support and partnerships at the community, state, national and global levels, is transforming both understanding of the disease and the way leprosy is treated in the country.
Dr. Kumar is a member of the GPZL’s Leadership Team and a key contributor to its efforts. During a May 2019 visit to the GPZL Secretariat, he outlined his vision for the future and highlighted India’s key accomplishments over the past several years. These have been impressive. In 2016, India implemented a comprehensive leprosy strategy including a case detection campaign that screened almost 320 million persons in high endemic districts. India has also rolled out a major new innovation—post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) in which a single dose of the antibiotic rifampicin is given to a patient’s contacts. India is also testing a new vaccine in high-endemic settings as well as a multiple-dose version of PEP.
Stigma can be a major barrier to care-seeking. A new leprosy awareness campaign is bringing positive messaging and information on leprosy awareness and treatment. “For too long we have used disfigured faces in our campaigns,” Dr. Kumar said. “We wanted something more positive: village celebrations, with very happy, positive messages.”
Persons who have experienced leprosy play a major role in these efforts, noted Dr. Kumar, as they “can share their stories with neighbors and bring a personal and positive approach to thinking about the disease.”
Dr. Kumar also spearheaded the implementation of an online reporting system with a patient tracking mechanism (Nikusth) for improved follow-up. “Data analysis and mathematical modeling from the system will help to inform policy,” he said. “Already, we have good data from detailed investigations of each and every case of Grade II disability by all States, and the establishment of a drug resistance surveillance network for leprosy in India.”
Some of the challenges faced by Dr. Kumar are unique while many others will be familiar to those working in leprosy. From a public health perspective, his case detection campaign was a huge success, finding and treating over 34 000 new cases in 2016, almost 25% of the new cases reported that year. But to some in the news media, this was interpreted to mean that leprosy was spreading out of control. Explaining this complex disease to the news media has been an important part of the process, says Dr. Kumar. “Eventually, we will get to zero transmission and we will need to explain a different thing—why we still need a surveillance system for leprosy,” he said. The answer to that is simple: “without our vigilance, leprosy will be back.”
By Courtenay Dusenbury, Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy secretariat