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WHO says leprosy growing problem in Micronesia

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, July 30, 2010) - The Marshall Islands goal of reducing the number of cases of Hansen’s Disease, commonly known as leprosy, to fewer than two cases per 10,000 people was dashed with the discovery of 33 new cases in this nation of 54,000. The discovery has urban-based health officials calling for training for outer island medical staff to learn how to screen and monitor people for the disease.

The Ministry of Health announced the explosion of new leprosy cases in a report on 2010 health activities to the United States government released Wednesday. The U.S. government provides multi-million dollar funding to health and education programs in the Marshall Islands.

For the Marshalls to reach its goal of fewer than two cases per 10,000 people, it needs to control leprosy so that there are fewer than 12 cases per year. But with 33 new cases found on just three of the 24 major inhabited atolls in this western Pacific nation so far this year, the challenge to eradicate the treatable disease is obvious.

The World Health Organization reports that leprosy is an increasing problem in the Micronesia area. The Federated States of Micronesia detected 124 new cases in 2008, while the number of new cases in Kiribati jumped from 42 in 2008 to 96 last year.

On Ebeye, the second most populated urban center, two new cases of leprosy were discovered late last year. The Ministry of Health reported that the number of new leprosy cases jumped to five this year. All of the people were on medication for this treatable illness, though the Ministry of Health officials reported that one person with leprosy moved to a remote outer island without informing health staff and had been off treatment for at least a month.

With the explosion of new cases on outer islands — 28 new cases identified so far — health officials running leprosy prevention programs called on outer islands health assistants to get more engaged in dealing with the problem instead of waiting for visits by medical teams from Majuro or Ebeye.

On one island, the Ministry reported that although there is a doctor on the island, "there was no log book on leprosy cases for follow up."

The ministry is recommending retraining health assistants to get a grip on the spread of leprosy in the outer islands.

"There is really a need to retrain all the health assistants to acquire new skills to provide relevant treatment and management of both TB and leprosy patients," the report said. "It is not adequate for the team to visit and provide treatment to the patients. The health assistants have to take the initiative to provide treatment of the patients."

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