COVID Support for Leprosy Communities: 4 States in Brazil

Activity area:

Through our grant programs, Sasakawa Health Foundation is working to realize a world free from all forms of suffering associated with leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.

In 2020, a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, life became tougher for communities of persons affected by leprosy and their families. Therefore, in addition to our existing grant programs, we added a COVID support program based on 1) responding to direct needs, 2) advocacy with the government, and 3) actively disseminating information.

Our fourth report is from Brazil.

Brazil is the country with the largest land area and biggest population on the South American continent. It reports around 25,000 new cases of leprosy a year and is the only country with a population of over 1 million that has yet to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem (with elimination defined as reducing prevalence to below 1 case per 10,000 population). Many of these cases are concentrated in the midwest and northeast of the country in economically deprived areas with poor access to health care.

Brazil is also grappling with an extremely higher number of coronavirus infections—there have been over 20 million cases as of September 2021 and over 580,00 deaths—making life difficult for its citizens, in particular persons affected by Hansen’s disease, who are often already in economically vulnerable circumstances and isolated from society. Our support activities were carried out against this backdrop.

Activities took place from November 2020 to February 2021 in four states—Amazonas, Ceara, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro—and were carried out by MORHAN, the Movement for the Reintegration of Persons Affected by Hansen’s Disease.   MORHAN channeled support to the states concerned, based on the needs on the ground as determined by its local branches. Founded in 1981, MORHAN’s membership currently numbers some 2,400 persons affected by Hansen’s disease and their families, as well as student, medical, and health worker volunteers.

Groceries and hygiene products are loaded into a van for delivery (February 2021, Manaus, Amazonas State)
Support included transporting the elderly to COVID vaccination sites(February 2021, Manaus, Amazonas State)

During the program period, the number of COVID cases was increasing rapidly throughout Brazil. To keep volunteers safe and to avoid them spreading infection, they were required to fully acquaint themselves with the safety protocols established by MORHAN’s headquarters and to wear masks and face shields, and wash their hands with disinfectant while carrying out their activities.

In the northwestern state of Amazonas, 294 households of persons affected by Hansen’s disease in the capital Manaus were provided with food and hygiene supplies, while volunteers also visited homes of people left isolated by the pandemic to offer counselling. In addition, in cooperation with the local government, MORHAN did what it could to make life easier for persons affected by Hansen’s disease and prevent coronavirus infection, including transporting the elderly to COVID vaccination sites.

In the northeastern state of Ceara, volunteers visited 80 households of persons affected by Hansen’s disease to deliver food and hygiene supplies. In addition, on World Leprosy Day at the end of January 2021, MORHAN organized a music event with local NGOs as part of a Hansen’s disease awareness campaign, while taking the opportunity to distribute leaflets about COVID-19 and appeal to the public to take steps to avoid infection.

In the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro, 60 households of persons affected by leprosy living in the grounds of a former hospital colony were provided with food and children’s toys. In Marica, a town that is home to the indigenous Guarani community, MORHAN gave lectures on Hansen’s disease and coronavirus prevention, distributed alcohol gels, and arranged for social workers to visit families isolated by the pandemic to offer counseling. Some of these households have lost family and friends to COVID, and social workers made multiple visits to help them come to terms with their loss.

COVID prevention leaflets were distributed to indigenous communities (December 2020, Marica, Rio de Janeiro State)
Delivering toys to families of persons affected by Hansen’s disease (December 2020, former hospital colony Tavares de Macedo, Rio de Janeiro State)

The rapid rise in COVID cases has put hospitals in Brazil under severe strain, leading to shortages of beds and medical equipment. In addition, many people have lost their source of livelihood, and worry about where their next meal is coming from. This project provided help to persons affected by Hansen’s disease at a difficult time, with visits by volunteers to those living in isolation and often close to despair because of the impact of the pandemic proving especially welcome.

With no prospect of the pandemic ending any time soon, we hope that MORHAN will continue to use its fund-raising abilities and network of branches and volunteers to keep on providing assistance and care to those most in need.