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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: In the Forests of Cameroon

The Goodwill Ambassador learns about the lives of the Baka people.

Visiting a Baka community in East Region


In July I made my first visit to the West African nation of Cameroon. Cameroon achieved the elimination of leprosy as a public health problem at the national level in 1998. In 2014, it reported around 300 new cases; however, this figure must be viewed alongside the fact many parts of the country do not provide any data on leprosy, something I hope Cameroon will be able to address.

Her eyes filled with tears and she told me she had contemplated suicide.

After meetings in the capital, Yaoundé, with the WHO’s country representative, Dr. Jean-Batiste Roungou, Health Minister André Mama Fouda and the national leprosy control program manager, Dr. Earnest Njih, I journeyed to East Region. I had come to learn more about the situation of the semi-nomadic Baka people inhabiting the rainforests in the southeast of the country.

The traditional Baka lifestyle has been affected by deforestation and increased hunting. There is also a policy to encourage resettlement and more Baka are starting to live near roads.

Based in Abong-Mbang, I visited several communities over the next two days. Among these, the first was Menzoh, where around 100 people had gathered to welcome me. I met three persons affected by leprosy there: an elderly man, a young boy, and a middle-aged woman whose body bore the marks of the disease. As the woman, whose name was Adou, spoke about the hardships she had faced, her eyes filled with tears and she told me she had contemplated suicide.

I also visited Kwamb. A leprosarium was established here in 1936 after it was relocated from Abong-Mbang because locals there were afraid of the disease. There are churches and a school, and a community of around 200 people affected by leprosy adjacent to the hospital.

Embracing a resident at Kwamb leprosarium

Among those I met at Kwamb, a middle-aged man told me he had developed leprosy as a child. He had received support from his immediate family, but had become distanced from his relatives and friends. He harbored hopes of returning to the forest one day.

In Missoumme, the last community I visited, some way into the forest, I met two people affected by leprosy. When I asked someone who lived there why they thought these two had come down with the disease, I was told it was either a curse or God’s punishment.

No matter where in the world one goes — even to a rainforest — the stigma associated with leprosy exists. This underlines the need for people everywhere to be properly educated about the disease and shows there is still much work to be done.