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Our History

On 31st January 1924, the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association (BELRA) was launched at Mansion House in the City of London. We operated under this name for 40 years, before renaming ourselves the British Leprosy Relief Association (LEPRA) in 1964. We’ve been known simply as Lepra since 2008.

We work in India and Bangladesh, offering training and health system strengthening.

We are proud of our achievements and continue to foster strong relationships with local and national governments in our project countries.

We are an evidence-led organisation and work to deliver real change to people’s lives and to give them a voice.

Our teams on the ground have pioneered many successful programmes and capacity building systems that have been adopted by others, including government and international organisations.

Foundation of Lepra

Lepra was founded in 1924, originally as BELRA, by Sir Leonard Rogers, Reverend Frank Oldrieve and Sir Frank Carter. From their experience in India, the men saw a need for an organisation dedicated to eradicating leprosy and studying the disease. There was an increased need for healthcare workers to travel to countries suffering from leprosy. A large recruitment drive by the founders of BELRA saw many English doctors, nurses and those interested in leprosy travelling to endemic countries to establish clinics and step up research efforts. 

Our achievements

  • In 1924 The British Empire Leprosy Relief Association was inaugurated by H.R.H The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) at Mansion House
  • In 1945 we were the first organisation to trial Dapsone as a treatment for leprosy
  • In 1959 we produced the first made-to-measure shoe to protect ulcerated feet. 
  • In 1975, we were one of the first associations to use multidrug therapy for leprosy treatment
  • In 1989 The Leprosy Society of India was launched, extending our Lepra family.
  • In 1998, we started work in preventing disabilities caused by the long-term effects of leprosy in Mayurbanjh, India
  • In 2000, we introduced health education vans in India, to present messages in a variety of media. Our programmes involve thousands of local volunteers, bringing health services and information to their communities
  • In 2006, we set up health camps in Bangladesh 
  • In 2012, we started self-support groups in Arogya Disha, India, for women with lymphatic filariasis or leprosy
  • In 2013, a new project in Bangladesh began to work with more than 22,000 people affected by physical disability to improve livelihood opportunities by skills training and business grants
  • In 2015, we started to fund work delivered by Netherlands Leprosy Relief (NLR) in the Zambezi province of Mozambique. 
  • In 2019, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the John Bradburn Memorial Society in Zimbabwe and began working in an advisory capacity in the Mutemwa Leprosy Care Centre, providing essential skills and training those helping people affected by leprosy in Zimbabwe. 

A hunt for the cure

In the 1940s a key breakthrough came with the trial of Dapsone treatment in India. Dr Robert Cochrane was the first to use Dapsone in Madras, India, on behalf of Lepra. This was a strong indication that our founding fathers had been right – with dedicated research a cure could be within our grasp. In 1946, a BELRA research unit was set up in Nigeria with the start of further research into drug therapy. 

Dr John Lowe was the first to successfully administer Dapsone orally at Uzuakoli, Nigeria. Additional recruits were sent out to Nigeria, Gambia and the Gold Coast where surveys were carried out. At the start of the new decade, a regional fundraising network was set up. This enabled a fleet of vehicles to be bought for outpatient work- which was so important for finding those hard to reach and often isolated places where leprosy was prevalent. By 1957, our work extended to Nyasaland, Sierra Leone and the Cameroons. Lepra was on the march!

A radical change 

In 1964, following a change in the political climate, BELRA was renamed LEPRA. This decade saw two major pilot projects being started, first in Malawi and then in Zambia – both supported by the governments of those countries. Another stride forwards in how governments deal with those suffering from leprosy was evoked by the title of the film: “Outpatients, not Outcasts” by Richard Bigham. Already Lepra was trying to normalize the disease. Fighting prejudice, stigma and social isolation was part of the struggle.

The 1970s was the decade that saw Lepra step out onto the world stage. Research moved on, with a new drug called Rifampicin, an antibiotic, becoming increasingly important to the treatment and cure of the disease. In 1975, Lepra alone was the first organisation to use Multi-drug therapy in the treatment of leprosy. And in 1976 Lepra went on to become a full member of ILEP. A confident organisation that had, and still has, much to offer the community, Lepra introduced Multidrug therapy throughout Malawi in 1983, and the field trial of it as a vaccine. in 1988 ‘Blister Calendar Packs’ are introduced for patients.