Leprosy among the Pygmies of D.R. Congo [2007/12/26]
Pygmies anxious on seeing a camera for the first time
On December 10, Chairman Yohei Sasakawa of the Nippon Foundation and WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, where leprosy has yet to be eliminated, for the purpose of examining an ethnic minority known as the Pygmies, which is battling a high prevalence of leprosy.
The delegation traveled in a small plane some 2,000 kilometers northeast from Kinshasa to the Wamba district, where they were welcomed by some 500 Pygmies, a people with an average height of 150 centimeters who subsist through a hunting-gathering way of life.
The party found chicken pox-like blisters and ulcers on the skin of many of the Pygmies. In many others, significant areas of exposed skin appeared to be diseased, perhaps due to poor sanitation conditions and the hardships of life in the brush. Also noticeable in certain individuals were white skin patches—a clear sign of leprosy. Many had deformed limbs. According to the Pygmies, even the seriously ill remain in the village. (Photo: Individuals with white patches on their skin, an early sign of leprosy)
Some 100,000 people live in the Wamba district, of whom 30,000 are Pygmies. 180 of these people suffer from leprosy—a ratio of 60 per 10,000. This state of affairs falls remarkably short of the WHO elimination target of less than one case per 10,000. (Photo: People with various skin conditions)
Why do so many Pygmies suffer from leprosy? “Pygmies tend to live in confined quarters, in close proximity to other members of their family,” says Dr. Jaquis, who has worked to eliminate the disease in this district for many years. “It's not uncommon for more than ten people to share the same small hut. So the risk of contagion is quite high.”
“Pygmies also lead a nomadic lifestyle, which makes it hard for them to undergo medical examinations and pick up the required medication at regular intervals. Even when medicine is delivered, the Pygmies tend to share everything equally among family members, portioning out medicine even to healthy individuals.”
After observing these conditions firsthand, Chairman Sasakawa promised to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo next year as part of efforts to eliminate leprosy among such ethnic minorities and in the nation overall.