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Student group helping combat leprosy in India

Chunichi Shimbun

A group of university students from Nagoya and Tokyo known as Namaste! will begin to provide support to those who have recovered from leprosy in India by selling accessories made by them from Monday in Japan over the Internet.

India is struggling with the largest outbreak of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, in the world. The chronic disease causes damage to the skin and nerves.

Some of the impoverished patients have been ostracized by their communities due to the stigma the disease still carries, so the group aims to use a social business model to provide them with a steady income.

Namaste! was formed in 2011 by Waseda University students who had previously assisted leprosy patients in China. The group has 25 members, including both current students and graduates, mainly from Waseda University, Nagoya City University, Gifu University and Kanagawa University, among other colleges.

“Once someone is diagnosed with leprosy in India, the people nearby stop treating them like humans,” said 24-year-old Eriko Kajita, the group’s leader.

A person’s profession and social status in India are delineated by its rigidly stratified caste system, but once a person develops leprosy, that person would be pushed out of the caste system into the class of “Untouchables,” which means patients can’t find a job even after they have fully recovered.

Most of the patients who overcome the disease join leper colonies on the outskirts of towns together with their families, and have to resort to begging.

The colonies range in size from a few dozen people to thousands of members. India is said to have more than 700 of them, but the true number is unknown and probably considerably higher.

Kajita has spent a total of five months in India so far. She stayed in colonies of former leprosy patients in the northeastern state of West Bengal, assisting repairs to houses and wells.

“The members of the colonies cannot attend schools for financial reasons, so in the end their descendants also will be unable to find any jobs,” said Aki Yasuda, 30, deputy head of the group.

With the cooperation of a local nonprofit organization, Namaste! came up with a plan to sell accessories and small articles made by members of the colonies online in Japan as a way of helping to break the cycle of poverty. Future items the group plans to sell include bridal accessories, according to Yasuda.

Both Kajita and Yasuda graduated from Waseda University in the spring. They decided to forgo job-hunting to focus on the group’s activities, opting to return to their hometown and put a little money away by working part-time.

“To really solve this problem, we need to include Indians as well,” said Kajita, who plans to enter a postgraduate program at an Indian college next summer and to recruit local students for the group.

Treatments for leprosy have become common in developed countries, which have significantly reduced the number of cases. However, the disease continues to spread in developing countries with tropical regions.

According to Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, 219,000 new cases of leprosy were reported worldwide in 2011.

They included 127,000 in India, followed by 34,000 in Brazil and 20,000 in Indonesia.

The group’s website for retailing the products will be launched Monday. For further information, please contact Yasuda via email at india.oaks@gmail.com.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published in the daily’s June 7 edition.