Perspectives on the impact of stigma in leprosy: strategies to improve access to health care.
Throughout its history, leprosy has been much feared and misunderstood. Today, we have the best knowledge, expertise, therapies, and surgical and physiotherapeutic skills to virtually cure and eradicate the disease, but the continuing high levels of stigma pose insurmountable obstacles in our efforts to remove the scourges of leprosy. In this review, the medical, social, and political aspects related to the impact of stigma on leprosy are elaborated, and strategies for providing access to equitable and effective care are described. Leprosy is a biosocial disease, and experience has shown that both the medical and social dimensions must be aggressively confronted. Stigma in leprosy is based on religious, sociocultural, psychological, and demographic experience over centuries of human existence. Therefore, any attempt to eradicate or reduce stigma will require strong multifaceted approaches that will permeate psychological, social, and mental layers of the human mind and result in necessary health-seeking behaviors. What then is needed is a social multidrug therapy similar to the medical multidrug therapy, where there would be one arm for curing the medical problems of leprosy, a second arm focusing on empowering the people, especially affected persons, through appropriate education, awareness, especially for early detection and treatment, encouraging positive attitudes and perceptions, and a third arm for advocacy, attacking derogatory and discriminatory laws, enabling opportunities for persons with leprosy disabilities to be profitably employed, and providing necessary rehabilitation facilities. Health can never be adequately protected by health services without the active understanding and involvement of communities whose health is at stake. The review cautions that without a social multidisciplinary approach using community-based participatory techniques, we cannot provide access to effective and acceptable health care to leprosy-affected persons.