MP for Northampton South meets leprosy patients in Dakha slums

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Men and women without toes, with clawed hands and amputated legs are not the usual line-up for a Member of Parliament’s foreign visit.

But Northampton South MP David Mackintosh says he was determined to learn as much about the problems that people face at the lower end of society face as he was about the huge strides that Bangladesh has made infighting poverty and stemming the population explosion, during his visit.

The newly elected MP travelled to the country’s capital Dhaka with delegation of businessmen from the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh group.

“When you go to these places you usually meet important people,” he said. “But, if you want to see the real country it's important to get out and see some of the real issues people face.

“Understandably everyone wants you to see projects that show a positive image of a place, but it is equally necessary to find out what challenges people face and see the conditions they live in, in order to raise awareness and make a difference.”

Mr Mackintosh first visited President Abdul Hamid and government ministers at the Presidential Palace and then the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban where the Sangshad or Parliament sit. There he learned about the huge strides the country has made in recent years.

Bangladesh has made leaps and bounds in development. For example, in 1972 the average number of children per household was seven. Today it stands at 2.2. And the average lifespan has rocketed from 56 in 1972 to around 70.

Mr Mackintosh’s next visit, despite security concerns in view of a recent shooting of an Italian national, was to a project supported by The Leprosy Mission England & Wales, on the outskirts of Dhaka, in Vasantec.

He also visited a self -help group at nearby Bashantek slums , where people who received early treatment and therefore escaped disability now look out for others with symptoms and bring them to the clinic for treatment.

In Vasantec he met Somola Akter, a 58-year-old widow, who used to live in Boroalgapa village with her son Azizul Haque, a rickshaw puller, and his family.

Soloma had dismissed the patch on her left arm as ‘nothing’ when it first appeared. When she developed an ulcer on her right foot Azizul took her to the hospital but doctors failed to diagnose leprosy. She subsequently lost three toes. A few months ago staff from Dhaka Leprosy Control Project saw her begging on the street. They spotted they recognised her symptoms and brought her to the Vasantec clinic where she is now receiving treatment.

Like most people who have not met someone with leprosy Mr Mackintosh did not know what to expect when he walked into the clinic where people, who had lost all of their toes, were sitting with their feet in buckets in order to clean and hydrate their feet.

He said: “I had been very nervous about my own reaction before I visited.

“I knew I wanted to shake hands to dispel the myth about catching it by touch, but I didn’t know how I would react when I saw the patients.

“But it was fine. My reaction was very human.

“All I saw was vulnerable people and the best of humanity – the selflessness of the people caring for them, the local doctors and people from the Leprosy Mission who work with them.”

Mr Mackintosh, formerly leader of Northampton Borough Council, said the Bangladesh-born UK businessmen were “really shocked” to learn that leprosy still existed.

“What was even more surprising to everyone was learning how easily it can be treated,” he said.

Leprosy is a mildly-infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae (a relative of the tuberculosis germ). It mainly occurs in communities where there is dirty water, bad nutrition and poor standards of living, leaving people's immune systems weak and unable to fight the disease

It has been curable with multidrug therapy (MDT) - a combination of rifampicin, clofazimine and dapsone - since 1982. But if left untreated it can lead to lack of sensation in the hands and feet resulting in clawed hands, blindness, severe ulcers and even legs being amputated.

More than three million people worldwide live with disabilities as a result of late treatment of leprosy. The huge stigma attached to it means people often hide the symptoms until it is too late.

Mr Mackintosh said: “There is a lot of work being done to address the stigma surrounding leprosy but not enough. If people like me take the opportunity to highlight the issue we can make a difference.

“The challenges that medical staff face is not just getting the medicine to the people who have leprosy but also making sure they take it.

“Taking tablets is routine for us if we are ill. It's not the case for people who have a lot more to worry about such as where their next meal will come from.

“As a Member of Parliament we have a responsibility to find out about the world and the issues that people face both in the UK and around the world.

“I'm proud of our Government’s commitment to international aid. But with that comes the responsibility of how that money is spent.”

The UK was the first G7 country to enshrine in law its commitment t spend 0.7 percent of its gross national income on aid every year.