Seventy kilometers outside Mossuril, in Nampula Province along the Mozambican coast, Simione Vontade, 29, was bumping along a tropical, sandy road when his car was stopped by a man with news of a potential leprosy case.
The man told Vontade, a district supervisor for the National Leprosy Programme, about a relative he suspected had leprosy but who couldn’t afford to visit the nearest health center to get diagnosed and treated. After visiting the relative at his home, Vontade and his team transported the two men to the health center, confirmed it was leprosy, and showed the man how to take the treatment. The relatives returned home the next day and Vontade continued to visit the patient each month, developing a relationship with the family. Today, the man is leprosy-free and able to walk.
“It is a story that makes me proud,” said Vontade. “That community now has the example that leprosy can be cured.”
January 30 is World Leprosy Day, a day to raise awareness about this historical, neglected tropical disease (NTD) that can be reduced to zero leprosy: no disease, no disability, and no discrimination. Leprosy has existed since the first civilizations with more than 200,000 people newly diagnosed each year and, globally, nearly 5 million people living with related disabilities and stigma.
The World Health Organization’s goal is to reduce new annual cases by 70% by 2030 with the long-term vision of zero leprosy. The Task Force’s Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy is partnering with 30 countries by 2030 to develop tailored, country-led plans to end leprosy.
Trained as a nurse, Vontade oversees planning, delivery, and monitoring of leprosy control activities in his district. He also accompanies technicians to visit community members and diagnose people affected by leprosy.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted regular programming for leprosy and other NTDs around the world. But Vontade and his team forged on to continue reaching people at risk of leprosy because early diagnosis is critical to leprosy control.
“I cannot simply wait for a leprosy patient to come to my office,” he said. “To be able to diagnose leprosy, we have to go out to the people in the community.”
Last year, the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy staff connected Vontade and other National Leprosy Programme supervisors across Mozambique with regional and international experts to share experiences. Together, these teams consulted health workers and people who have experienced leprosy to better understand patients’ experiences and find ways to improve health outcomes.
As Vontade’s approach makes clear, the work does not end with a diagnosis. Providers like Vontade work with patients throughout their journey.
If diagnosed quickly, leprosy is a curable chronic disease. Treatment can require more than six months of taking a combination of drugs, known as multi-drug therapy (MDT). Sometimes people abandon the regimen before they have overcome the disease. Vontade is like the loyal friend who keeps patients motivated to complete their treatment. His secret: “Frequent contact is very important!”
One of the ways Vontade encourages patients to complete their treatment is by engaging their support systems and combating stigma at the community level, as stigma surrounding leprosy often prevents people from seeking and continuing care.
“In the activities carried out in the communities, we always have this component of awareness-raising,” said Vontade, adding that when he diagnoses someone with leprosy, he brings their family members together to explain that leprosy is curable. “Family support is very important so that patients comply with the treatment.”
Vontade is inspired by patients like the person he met that day in Nampula who overcome leprosy and return to their routines.
“There are people who are cured and are able to do their work and domestic activities again,” said Vontade. “They tend to their vegetable garden and collect firewood without difficulty.”
These success stories motivate Vontade, his fellow health workers across the Mossuril district, and their many partners in the effort to end leprosy and ensure no one is left behind.
Photos courtesy of Ricardo Franco.
Photos courtesy of Ricardo Franco.