To mark World Leprosy Day, the World Health Organization is calling for the eradication of this ancient disfiguring disease by combating the stigma and discrimination that discourages people from seeking the help they need.

Leprosy, a hideously disfiguring disease that has blighted the lives of countless millions since Biblical days, is curable. And yet, the World Health Organization reports more than 200,000 people, most in Southeast Asia, are affected with the disease and new cases continue to arise every year.

Leprosy is a chronic bacterial disease with a slow incubation period of about five years. In some cases, symptoms may occur within one year, but can take as long as 20 years to appear.

Leprosy was eliminated globally as a public health problem in 2000, but the disease persists in individuals and communities. WHO spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, tells VOA this is unacceptable, as an effective treatment exists that can fully cure people of leprosy.

“Since ’95, WHO has provided this multi-drug therapy free of cost to all leprosy patients in the world,” he said. “In 2016, WHO launched global leprosy strategy, 2016-2020, accelerating toward a leprosy-free world. This is basically to revamp the efforts for leprosy control. The strategy focuses on avoiding disabilities, especially among children.”

This year’s World Leprosy Day focuses on preventing disabilities in children. WHO reports children account for nearly nine percent of all new cases of leprosy, including almost seven percent of those with visible deformities.

The U.N. health agency notes early diagnosis and early treatment can prevent disability. It says disabilities do not occur overnight, but happen after a prolonged period of undiagnosed and untreated disease.

Unfortunately, it notes many people do not seek help until it is too late and deformities already have appeared. This is because of the stigma and discrimination associated with leprosy.

WHO is calling for laws discriminating against people with leprosy to be abolished and replaced with policies promoting inclusion of such people within society.