Episode 1. The Scourge of Leprosy
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Leprosy is something we read a lot about in the Bible. But what is it? How does it impact people? And what does it tell us about Jesus as He reached out and touched the leper? This week, Berni’s joined by a very special guest who lives and works among people with leprosy. Well, over […]
Leprosy is something we read a lot about in the Bible. But what is it? How does it impact people? And what does it tell us about Jesus as He reached out and touched the leper? This week, Berni’s joined by a very special guest who lives and works among people with leprosy.
Well, over the last couple of weeks on the program we’ve been spending the odd day at the office with Jesus. Following Him around through a few chapters of Luke’s Gospel and seeing the sorts of things He encountered and what He said and how He reacted. Real rubber hits the road kind of stuff. Because I believe He’s not some distant saviour but He became one of us to be close to us. So many people struggle with, well where’s God? Well, the answer is, He’s right here in Jesus Christ.
And today we’re going to continue along that same theme but in a whole different way. You may recall that one of the things that Jesus encountered a number of times was people with leprosy. And today I’m joined by a woman who lives and works amongst people with leprosy in Asia.
Now she’s visiting Australia for a short time, I don’t want to tell you exactly where she’s working. Her names Alex Jagelman. Alex, welcome to the program.
Alex: Thanks Berni, good to be here.
Berni: Now time and time again we see lepers in the Bible, I guess you’d read all that before you headed off to work amongst people with leprosy. Do you remember much about what you thought about those passages, how you read them before you confronted the reality of leprosy?
Alex: To be honest I never really, I never really thought. It was 2,000 years ago to me. It was not in my neighbourhood so I actually, to be honest, I never really thought about it before I heard that there were people with leprosy living in my area in Asia.
Berni: I guess a lot of us, I mean I didn’t even realise that leprosy was still around these days.
Alex: Absolutely and interestingly leprosy is actually still around in Australia, in America. We do have people affected by leprosy even in our countries even today.
Berni: I guess you’ve changed a little bit now that you’ve worked amongst people with leprosy, as you read these passages now in the Bible about people with leprosy, what do you read, what do you see, how does it impact you?
Alex: I think it’s phenomenal. Back then when Jesus was touching and eating and sharing life with people affected by leprosy when there was no cure back 2,000 years ago and this stigma involved. It was quite radical.
Berni: Okay, tell us a little bit about the disease itself. From the clinical perspective what can you tell us? Exactly what is leprosy?
Alex: Okay Berni, well leprosy is actually a bacteria. It’s very similar to tuberculosis. It’s a very slow growing bacteria and it’s transmitted through air born particles so when you breathe it out. Now the thing to know is that 98% of people are actually immune to it. It’s the indigenous cultures in a country where they haven’t been exposed to it like say Caucasians have for thousands of years that don’t have that same immunity to it.
Berni: Oh, okay. So people catch it through air born particles, through touch as well I guess?
Alex: No, not through touch. No, its air born, it’s like tuberculosis. We can say people living together in close proximity for many, many years. It’s quite difficult to catch so we would say people living amongst people affected by leprosy or in a family where maybe the grandparent was affected. Often they’re in a small house in these more developing nations and they live in close quarters, maybe not a lot of ventilation, over years that would be the most common way for leprosy to be transmitted.
Berni: So how does it start out? I mean someone catches leprosy, what’s the first thing that they notice?
Alex: Well, it actually takes many years to get any real signs or symptoms of leprosy because as I said it’s a very slow growing bacteria. So maybe after a couple of years you would see a white patch or a different skin patch somewhere on your body and it looks a little bit like a fungus, something like a tinea and you may not really take any notice of it, you may use some creams and it doesn’t have any affect. It doesn’t really have any other symptoms. Some people don’t even develop any skin patches at all but they may start to notice after two to five years that they get weakness. Weakness in their hands or maybe a bit of numbness in your hands or their feet.
Berni: So, okay, that’s how it starts out, what then develops? Clinically what happens as leprosy the disease progresses through your body?
Alex: All right. Well the tragic thing about leprosy is it affects the nerves. And just like we can’t repair spine damage when someone’s had a spinal cord injury, we can’t repair the damage that’s happened to the nerves in the hands and the feet. The leprosy bacteria likes to live in the cooler places of the body, the hands, the feet, your nose, your ears, ear lobes. And with the hands and feet it actually causes numbness, you lose the ability to sense pressure and hot/cold. You lose all feeling and the tragic thing is that when you don’t feel something you’re so prone to get injured. Especially if you’re in a poorer country where you may not have shoes, you walk on numb feet over rocks, over sticks and you get injuries.
Berni: And I guess that makes it all worse.
Alex: And it makes it worse because you can’t feel it. Now you think if you’ve stubbed your toe how much more careful you are about that toe and you take care of it. Well if you can’t feel it you continue to walk on it. You don’t feel an infection starting.
Something can go deeper, it often can affect the bone and that’s when we get these real malformations, deformities coming in because the bone gets affected. They can’t feel this. They’ll have a huge ulcer on their feet and they actually just can’t feel it so they don’t, they ignore it and that can get worse, it can affect the bone. And then we start maybe seeing limbs getting affected and we’ve also seen the clawing of the hands and feet.
Sometimes the hands get stiff and they get stuck into a position. We call them a claw hand or claw feet or the foot turns in so you’re suddenly using your hand…
Berni: It’s just not functional.
Alex: It’s just not functional, yeah that’s right. It’s much more easier to get disabled.
Berni: All right now, in the Bible one of the passages that really touches me is in Mark chapter 1 beginning at verse 40 where Jesus, of course, meets the leper and the leper says, ‘If you’re willing you can make me clean’. He reaches out and touches the leper but it says of this man with leprosy that he was full of leprosy. Now Luke of course when he wrote about that, he’s a physician so he’s looking at it, he was full of leprosy. You assume therefore he’s advanced, this disease had been with him for a long time. If this disease goes untreated what does ‘full of leprosy’ look like? What does that mean?
Alex: Maybe some of the things that I have seen, you would get a collapse of the bridge of the nose, the leprosy bacteria maybe has affected the nose. Some forms of leprosy make nodules so your whole face and most of your body will actually have kind of nodules all over it. You may see someone with claw hands or maybe they’ve already lost a number of fingers or toes. Maybe the foot is actually turned in so that’s what I would think of someone who’s never been treated with leprosy and they’ve had it for many, many, many years.
Berni: So in the country where you’re working now, amongst people with leprosy, how are the people with leprosy treated by society as a whole?
Alex: Absolutely rejected. Absolutely segregated, certainly in former years. Over the last ten years we’ve seen a slight change but certainly when I first started working amongst those people affected by leprosy, nobody had gone into their villages and many of my patients have said that after 30 years they haven’t seen any outsiders.
Berni: Now you’re in Australia at the moment for a number of reasons and you’re due to go back towards the end of the year. Would you rather stay here or would you rather go back?
Alex: Oh absolutely go back. There is so much to be done still and so many rich opportunities to bless and to be practically the hands and feet and mouth piece of Jesus.
Berni: That is awesome. Alex thanks for joining us. You’re going to be with us all week on the program so we’ll chat again with you tomorrow.
Alex: Thanks Berni.