I remember the day I first knowingly met someone living with leprosy. I was travelling overland through Africa in 1976, and stopping in a small village in a remote part of West Africa, an elderly man extended his arm to shake my hand in greeting. He had no fingers. I held his hand in mine and felt grateful I was not similarly afflicted. Over the following 40 years, working in Africa and South Asia, I was to meet countless others living with leprosy, either in colonies or in remote places where they had little contact with other people. It is bad enough to be living with such a debilitating disease (if not caught early on) but equally terrible to live with the stigma it carries.

As we start a new year, following the Christmas period when many of us have enjoyed rich food and the warm comforts of home and family, my thoughts reach out to the many millions of people who have none of that. The millions made homeless as a result of war, ethnic cleansing, environmental disaster and poverty. We know only too well that the poor sanitation, overcrowding and undernutrition that go hand in hand with homelessness, provide the ideal breeding ground for communicable diseases including neglected diseases such as leprosy.

Pictured: Fiona Duby, OBE

It is sad but true, that most of us don’t understand the facts about leprosy, or even know that leprosy continues to cause pain and stigma to countless people in low income countries. Lepra works tirelessly in the UK and in the countries where we work, to inform and educate people and dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding leprosy. As a trustee for 15 years and now as an Ambassador for Lepra, I am proud to lend my voice in support of their work. But there is a long way to go to generate interest, concern and understanding of the problems that Lepra and its partners have to tackle every working day.

Lepra has conducted research in the UK which illustrates the lack of awareness of leprosy and only 44% of the British public are aware that the disease affects children. Leprosy is a condition we can cure and if treated early there will be no disabilities which result from chronic untreated leprosy.

We are hugely grateful to our loyal and regular donors and volunteers as well as those raising money from sponsored bike rides and other events.

From my own experience, it is almost impossible not to feel hugely moved by experiencing first hand, our work with people living with leprosy and conditions such as lymphatic filariasis, where those affected develop “elephantine” legs for example. Lepra’s work improves lives in many different ways. It might be an early cure; or treatment, counselling and physical therapy. Or it might be surgery to return mobility to hands affected by leprosy.

But it is always challenging to convince donors to choose leprosy as a cause they can make a difference to especially in India which is regarded as able to look after its own problems. It is also difficult to convince people in the UK that leprosy continues to be a problem that we in the UK need to tackle – not here, because we are lucky enough to have overcome leprosy in the UK but we need to help others with fewer resources, fewer opportunities become self-reliant and free from disease.

As one of Lepra’s ambassadors, I commend Lepra for the wonderful work it is doing in India, Bangladesh and Mozambique. I hope you will help us make leprosy history.

Fiona Duby, Lepra Ambassador