On World Humanitarian Day 2021, Dr Aparna Srikantam, Head of Research at Lepra’s Blue Peter Public Health and Research Centre (BPHRC) shared details of Lepra’s humanitarian response to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on people affected by leprosy and lymphatic filariasis via the NTD NGO Network (NNN).
Every day, more stories emerge about the devastation COVID-19 is causing all across the world, including the massive disruption to Neglected Tropical Disease interventions. However, as part of the NNN we continue to see member organisations identify opportunities, and continue to develop tools to advance our important health-promoting efforts. NTD programmes have reached over a billion people during the last four years, and this World Humanitarian Day, we stand in solidarity with NNN and its 80+ member organizations globally, working together to improve health for the world's most vulnerable populations and build a brighter future and bring health for all.
During the COVID-19 crisis many people affected by leprosy have lost their livelihoods. With little to no savings to fall back on, families are on the verge of starvation. People living in marginalised communities, like leprosy settlements and rural villages with high numbers of cases of lymphatic filariasis (LF), have had poor access to COVID-19 services. Unless their immediate needs are met, these families and their local communities will struggle to be a part of the sustainable response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lepra’s humanitarian response focused on the challenges faced by people affected by leprosy and LF, and subsequently set in motion a multipronged approach; in-clinic and mobile COVID-19 testing, food-aid packages for those who had lost their livelihood, oxygen concentrators deliveries to local hospitals in need, and as of April 2021, COVID-19 vaccinations. Thus, from April 2020 until now, Lepra has been able to provide a full range of COVID-19 services for the people affected by leprosy and LF in India.
Response 1: COVID-19 PCR testing
PCR testing is the first step towards diagnosis and further management of COVID-19, and Lepra has offered untiring efforts to provide this service with strict adherence to the government’s directives and guidelines. Responding to the pandemic, Lepra’s Blue Peter Public Health and Research Centre (BPHRC) made the necessary preparations and laboratory upgrades to meet the protocols of the Government of India. Subsequently, BPHRC was accredited by the Government of India to conduct COVID PCR tests. 12,400 COVID-19 PCR tests were conducted by Lepra in India between April 2020 and July 2021.
A mobile integrated health facility was also opened at Kushnapally, in the Kumaram Bheem district enabling BPHRC to provide mobile COVID-19 PCR testing to people affected by leprosy residing in leprosy settlements in Nalgonda, Hyderabad, and also to remote communities in the Kumaram Bheem district of Telangana. The mobile integrated health facility project was funded jointly by Lepra UK and Canadian charity, effect:hope, and provided CBNAAT (Cartridge Based Nucleic Acid Amplification) tests for COVID-19 and tuberculosis, and slit skin smear microscopy for leprosy case detection and management. A total of 1,726 people were reached in providing COVID RTPCR tests through the mobile integrated health facility, with any positive cases being referred to a government health facility for further management.
Response 2: Food-aid packages distributed to 38,823 families and affected by leprosy and LF between April 2020 and March 2021
COVID-19 lockdowns have affected, in one way or another, all aspects of life. Economies and livelihoods have been severely affected, leading to a huge worsening of poverty. People have been unable to feed themselves and their families. In what seemed like a hopeless situation, with a dire need for nutrition, Lepra geared up to support not only people affected by leprosy, but the marginalised and poverty-stricken.
Food-aid packages, prioritising people and families affected by leprosy and LF and people living with HIV have been delivered to 38,823 families across India; 1,208 families in the urban slums and remote villages of Telangana, 1,095 families in Madhya Pradesh state, 3,144 in Bihar, 1,058 families in Andhra Pradesh and 32,318 families in Odisha. On top of these figures, 1100 people living with HIV, 220 people affected by leprosy and 55 people affected by lymphatic filariasis in Andhra Pradesh also received food-aid packages.
Response 3: The COVID-19 Emergency Vaccination Programme
The COVID-19 vaccination project took place in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar and in total of 15,523 people affected by leprosy or LF have received the COVID-19 vaccine through Lepra’s COVID-19 Emergency Vaccination Programme, funded by Lepra UK, effect:hope and the American Leprosy Mission, India.
Lepra’s self-support groups and the Association of People Affected by Leprosy (representing people living in leprosy settlements), were the main vehicles for enlisting people affected by leprosy for vaccination and providing on-going support. COVID-19 community awareness-raising sessions took place across communities, and were a platform to clear misconceptions, and drive vaccination uptake across leprosy settlements.
Response 4: Oxygen relief
When the second wave of COVID-19 hit India, there was a steep rise in the demand for hospital beds and oxygen, which both the government and the private sector could not meet. The cost of oxygen in the private sector was exorbitant, and not affordable for the vast majority of the COVID-19 affected patients. In this context, Lepra collaborated with Mission Oxygen, a group of concerned individuals who aimed to alleviate the oxygen crisis in India. A total of 80 oxygen concentrators were supplied to local hospitals across the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
World Humanitarian Day is a day that brings together partners from across the humanitarian system to advocate for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises, and for the safety and security of aid workers. This pandemic has demonstrated that governments and partners can band together to advocate for improved hygiene, oxygen relief and good handwashing practices. If this can be done for COVID-19, this can be done for other diseases.
Authors: Dr Aparna Srikantam and Dr. Michael Sukumar Pallapati LEPRA – Blue Peter Public Health and Research Centre, India; on behalf of the NTD NGO Network’s Disease Management, Disability and Inclusion; and Conflict and Humanitarian Emergencies Working Groups.