It was a great surprise to see leprosy portrayed in a recent episode of the BBC television series “Call the Midwife”. The portrayal of the disease itself was rather Ben Hur-ish, and the frightened reactions of people to the disease was a bit blurred as most of the people thought they were reacting to smallpox, and were justifiably afraid of what at that time was a dangerous disease. The subsequent diagnosis of leprosy was a surprise to everyone, but interestingly was presented as a relief, because leprosy is much less infectious than smallpox.
The compassionate treatment that the man suffering with leprosy received from the nuns at Nonnatus House was a great echo of the many historical places around the world where Christian groups established havens for people affected by leprosy, or worked in isolated colonies where nations forced sufferers to live to protect the rest of the population. It was also good to see the non-Christian members of the midwives’ team reacting with compassion as well, as they understood the nature of leprosy, and were not overcome by the psychological horrors attached to the disease.
It is interesting to reflect that, although this protrayal is set in the 1960s, we still have leprosy in Britain today, usually coming into the country from Asia or Africa, as with the case in this episode. A problem today is that doctors here are not experienced at diagnosing leprosy as it is rare to see cases, and in medical training here it only gains a very brief mention. An article a few years back mentioned 120 diagnoses of leprosy missed by British GPs in a year. I remember one of the medical student visitors to Lalgadh saying how strange he felt at having his six week visit to Lalgadh – with all its emotional highs and lows – reduced to a dry five minute slot in a dermatology lecture. It was almost surreal for him, and highlights the continuing neglect that this disease faces in the western world, and explains why it is characterised by the WHO as a “Neglected Tropical Disease”.
Well done to the BBC and the “Call the Midwife” team for including this subject with some positive messages.
Here are some links to historical information about leprosy colonies: