Thursday, September 25, 2008

India court backs leprosy ruling

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Woman with damaged hands
Leprosy patients are treated with a lot of stigma in India

India's Supreme Court has upheld a ruling that leprosy patients cannot contest a civic election or hold municipal office in Orissa state.

The case was brought to court by two men who were elected to a civic body in Orissa in 2003, but were later disqualified as they had leprosy.

Campaigners were shocked at the ruling, saying there was no medical reason to discriminate against leprosy patients.

India accounts for more than 65% of all the leprosy cases in the world.

The country has been fighting hard to combat the condition and according to official records it has eliminated leprosy.

But non-governmental organisations say the country adds at least 100,000 new leprosy cases every year.

'No illegality'

The Orissa Municipal Act of 1950 bars people suffering from tuberculosis or leprosy from holding such posts.

The health ministry has written to the state governments asking them to review any archaic laws regarding the disease as it is not contagious
Vinita Shankar,
Sasakawa India Leprosy Foundation

"The legislature in its wisdom has thought it fit to retain such provisions in the statute in order to eliminate the danger of the disease being transmitted to other people from the person affected," Supreme Court judges CK Thakker and DK Jain said in their ruling.

The two disqualified councillors from Orissa had petitioned the court after the state high court ruled that their disqualification was not discriminatory.

The Supreme Court judges upheld the earlier decision, saying: "We do not find any infirmity or illegality in the judgment warranting interference."

Campaigners are, however, appalled by the court order.

"It's come as a shock. It's incomprehensible how the Supreme Court can say something like this," Vinita Shankar, director of the Sasakawa India Leprosy Foundation (SILF), told the BBC.

"There is no scientific basis for discrimination against a leprosy patient, the court order is based on inadequate information."

Ms Shankar says India is a signatory to the UN resolution which says discrimination against leprosy patients must be ended.

"The Indian government and the health ministry have been very supportive of the cause, the health ministry has written to the state governments asking them to review any archaic laws regarding the disease as it is not contagious," she said.

Leprosy is one of the world's oldest diseases - written accounts of leprosy in Indian date back to 600BC.

Although the disease is very hard to catch, leprosy patients are often treated with a lot of stigma in India.

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