It started with a small, dark spot on Oeur Pisey’s left arm: A spot that he simply ignored.
Slowly, other spots appeared. They soon covered Mr. Pisey’s thighs, upper body, and eventually, his face.
A local health clinic in Kompong Cham province told him not to worry: the spots were due to a simple allergy, he was told.
“I took the medicine from the private clinic but it didn’t get better, and I didn’t know what was wrong,” Mr. Pisey, now 29, recounted Thursday on the sidelines of an event to mark World Leprosy Day.
The discovery that he was in the early stages of leprosy was a coincidence, Mr. Pisey said during an interview at the Kien Khleang National Leprosy Rehabilitation Center in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district.
His mother, he said, had traveled to the Kien Khleang center to get minor eye surgery and during her visit noticed that the leprosy patients had dark spots on their skin and loss of sensation in hands and feet—symptoms familiar to her son.
“She came home from the eye clinic, and she told me: ‘The patients there have the same problems as you,’” Mr. Pisey said.
Nine months ago, he started to receive treatment for leprosy. In just a few weeks, his leprosy will be cured, without bearing the disabilities the infectious bacteria can cause.
Early detection of the disease is easy and so is treatment, particularly in the early stages, said Harald Schmid de Gruneck, head of mission of the Order of Malta’s International Committee, which funds the Kien Khleang center.
Yet, Mr. de Gruneck said, “Leprosy remains a forgotten, neglected and underfunded disease.”
Because people often ignore skin lesions, particularly in poor communities and rural areas, the Order of Malta and the Ministry of Health started a leprosy early-detection campaign in 2011.
“We send out a team of experts to revisit old [leprosy] cases to find new cases,” said Chan Sarin, a technical adviser with the National Leprosy Elimination program, explaining that infections can often be found by simply checking the family, friends and neighbors of old patients.
Through the campaign, more than 600 new cases of leprosy were detected in the past three years.
“More than 600 people were diagnosed through the contact survey team, and besides six [cases], we found all of them before they had disabilities,” said So Visal, a public health officer with the Order of Malta.
Early detection helps prevent crippling deformities such as those suffered by 52-year-old Y Hoeun from Svay Rieng province, who lost her fingers and toes to leprosy as a young girl.
“I can walk, but only with a walking frame, and I can not work, because I have no fingers,” Ms. Hoeun said.
“I have to live with my older sister, and I am not married. For me there is no chance in life.”
Mr. Sarin, of the National Leprosy Elimination program, is a case in point.
Through his work he contracted the disease about 15 years ago, but was diagnosed as soon as he noticed a dark spot on his arm.
“I was not worried, because I knew what it was, and I know it can be cured,” he said, showing a tiny spot on his right arm—all that remains of his leprosy.