PORT MORESBY - Sitting in the car I could see her in the distance – running, half limping.
After a while I got out and moved to the front of the vehicle and waited for her.
Rebecca slowed down as she approached but continued towards me. I could see she was excited but, just as she came close, she turned as if to dash away and escape.
I grabbed her and held her close to me.
Rebecca is a 15-year-old girl who lives on the outskirts of Port Moresby.
She is spending her early years living in shame because of her condition.
Growing up with leprosy she can see how she is losing both of her feet and her right hand.
She is worrying about being deformed. She understands the implications of her predicament and lives in shame.
Leprosy and poverty feed off each other. In places where leprosy is widespread, there is often unbearable poverty. Where there is leprosy it is not hard to see disability but it is not only in the hands and feet, it affects the eyes.
Globally, Papua New Guinea is considered to be a poor country (two in five people live in poverty) and it is not hard to find people living with leprosy in these statistics. In fact the incidence of the disease is on the increase.
PNG boasts of its modern infrastructure development but there is a group of people who will never have the opportunity to benefit from these services because of their physical condition.
These people continue to live without proper nutrition, without clean water and in crowded conditions – prominent factors leading to the re-emergence of leprosy.
In Papua New Guinea leprosy was announced as being successfully eliminated in 2000 however, in recent years, we have seen it resurface in Western, Gulf, Central and Sandaun provinces and in the National Capital District.
The World Health Organisation reports that at the end of the first quarter of 2017, 356 new leprosy cases were recorded. Off this 140 were women and 89 children.
If not treated leprosy causes significant disability in hands, feet and eyes. The good thing for PNG is that the medicine to cure it is available free.
However not all people are aware of the disease and those who have been diagnosed often do not take their medicine. In many cases the one kina for a clinic book or a bus ride to the nearest health centre is a burden as that kina may buy a meal for someone.
Even though Rebecca wants to go to school, for a number of reasons she has not been able to.
In Port Moresby all schools demand school uniforms, complete with shoes. This is asking a lot for orphans like Rebecca who must first find money to feed herself and then to pay her way to Port Moresby General Hospital for check-ups.
She has dutifully completed her treatment, however the scars are still there and, as she limped her way back to the river, she waved at us with a ‘I hope you come back’.
The United Nations’ sustainable development goals list ‘No Poverty’ as the number one priority but the persistent presence of leprosy in PNG communities demands that we do more to help rid our society of this disease.
Better health, nutrition and sanitation practices are needed to help steer Papua New Guinea to be a healthier nation.