ACCRA, Ghana — In the atmosphere of calm at Weija Leprosarium, near Ghana’s capital Accra, the caretaker sees an opportunity to educate Ghanaians about Hansen’s disease while everyone is learning precautionary measures for the coronavirus threat.
Residents at the leprosarium, who suffer from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) or the effects of the disease, are staying home in compliance with Accra’s lockdown in response to COVID-19, said George Quansah.
“With the help of my staff, we have talked to them at length and advised them to adhere to the precautionary measures seriously,” he said.
Ghana’s ministry of health — in collaboration with the Lepers Aid Committee, headed by Divine Word Father Andrew Campbell — “should intensify their education on leprosy nationwide,” Quansah said.
Weija Leprosarium was set up in 1993 by the Irish-born priest, pastor of Christ the King Church, Accra, who came by boat to Ghana as a missionary in 1971.
He is “a very good man” who “treats us with dignity,” said Gladys Adobea, who has five adult children and has been at the leprosarium from the start.
Campbell “has made life a little easier for me,” she said, noting that it was through his efforts that people with Hansen’s disease now benefit from the government’s national program for poverty relief.
The 74-year-old priest campaigns for Ghanaians, particularly families, to accept and integrate people affected by the disease into their communities.
Hansen’s disease is a chronic infectious disease that attacks skin, peripheral nerves and mucous membranes. While it is one of the world’s most stigmatized infectious diseases, more than 95 percent of people have a natural immunity to leprosy.
The stigma attached to leprosy is “a terrible thing,” Campbell said, noting that those affected must “be treated with dignity.”
With multi-drug treatment, “the notion that once a leper always a leper is not true,” he said.
“I first encountered a leper when a man came to the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Accra some years ago to sell mangoes,” Campbell said. “I was frightened and didn’t know how to react.”
The priest said he began to take an interest in the plight of those with leprosy and noticed how badly they were treated, even by medical staff in hospitals.
Adobea noted that Campbell ensures that her and other patients’ medical bills are paid by the Lepers Aid Committee, which was established at the same time as the Weija Leprosarium.
“He has certainly changed our lives positively,” she said.
The Lepers Aid Committee comprises mostly young volunteers who raise funds for the leprosarium in Weija and others in the cities of Ho, Cape Coast and Kumasi and in Nkanchina village.
Campbell and others have helped in reducing the stigma attached to leprosy, said 89-year-old Kojo Aggrey. “It is time people see us as part of society,” rather than “outcasts and a burden,” he said.
But the ban on church services and other large gatherings in response to COVID-19 has brought a dwindling of funds for Campbell’s work with leprosy patients and at a soup kitchen he runs from his parish for street children in Accra. Most of the funding for the soup kitchen, where children are also counseled and taught skills, comes from weekday Mass offerings and donations.