An aspiring teacher is on a mission to lift the stigma around leprosy.
Melody Yong, a youth advocate for Leprosy Mission New Zealand, says a recent trip to Nepal to learn about Leprosy and help those affected has changed her life.
“This trip has opened my eyes to a disease that affects so many people, and it has heartbreaking consequences for those suffering from it,” says the Pakuranga resident.
“Leprosy sufferers are often cast out of their families and communities and most doctors are scared of treating leprosy affected patients. Yet here in New Zealand, many people don’t even know that leprosy still exists.”
Yong admits that she too was ignorant about the disease before her advocacy mission, but hopes to change the perception of leprosy in New Zealand and around the world. “When I first heard about leprosy, I thought it was some ancient, biblical disease that was long gone.”
The University of Auckland student says she has since learnt that someone is newly diagnosed with leprosy every few minutes and millions around the world are suffering from it.
“I want to inform people that leprosy has a cure, and people don’t have to suffer forever.”
Although treatment is now fully funded by the World Health Organisation, Yong says communities affected by Leprosy still believe it to be a curse cast upon you for a wrong-doing. This age-old stigma forces leprosy sufferers to hide their symptoms from fear of being shunned and they often receive treatment too late.
Alongside eight other advocates for Leprosy Mission New Zealand, Yong volunteered in Anandaban hospital, which specialises in the treatment of leprosy affected patients, with the aim to break down stigma and empower people affected by leprosy to stand up for their rights.
“We went on ward rounds with doctors, meeting the patients and listening to their stories, many of which are heartbreaking.
“I met this old lady who had lost many of her fingers to leprosy, but she could still knit. And I’d watch her knit, and even though there was a massive language barrier, she taught me how to knit. It’s wonderful how little you need to connect with someone,” she says.
Yong observed surgeries that helped restore movement in the hands of leprosy sufferers whose have suffered severe nerve damage, and watched leprosy sufferers undergo rehabilitation to prepare them for re-entering the community.
She says one of her most important roles was venturing out to isolated communities in Kathmandu and talking to the villagers about leprosy.
The Leprosy Mission New Zealand advocates are still in the process of raising $30,000 for a digital X-ray machine to improve the medical facilities at Anandaban Hospital.