How LEPRA Land Rovers fought leprosy, and how you can support the cause

LEPRA Land Rover 109in Series

by Theo Ford-Sagers |

LEPRA, a UK charity that helps people affected by leprosy worldwide, is looking for a Series Land Rover owner to take part in its 100th anniversary

Land Rovers supplied by LEPRA played a major role in delivering healthcare to remote areas of Africa – particularly in Malawi during the 1960s and ’70s, where tens of thousands of people with leprosy were treated from three Land Rovers.

By breaking down discrimination and reducing the spread of the disease, the scheme saw significant results and was replicated in other areas of Africa – Sierra Leone, Tanzania and the Republic of Zambia, and then across all the countries supported by LEPRA. Volunteers using LEPRA Land Rovers were also instrumental in mapping rural areas to help administer the projects.

Painted with bold red LEPRA lettering, the Land Rovers were a distinctive and welcoming sight for those who needed care. Jane Hadcock, archivist for the charity, says: ‘Prejudice and discrimination became non-existent because the Land Rover became a beacon to villagers and townspeople – something to celebrate rather than shy away from. Land Rovers started a revolution in the treatment of leprosy, and we therefore see them as a very positive part of our history.’

Read on to learn about how LEPRA used Land Rovers, and what you can do to help.

Tody Drake with a LEPRA landrover in Zambia in 1968.

How the LEPRA Land Rovers were used

Before 1965, when LEPRA began using Land Rovers in Malawi, the charity was able to attend to fewer than 50% of leprosy cases. The Malawi Project saw Land Rovers venturing into the remote and hilly terrain of tea plantations, deep valleys and scattered villages. LEPRA provided funding to acquire and maintain the Land Rovers which acted as mobile ‘field units’. Doctors and their assistants used them to seek out leprosy cases and administer care from ‘roadside clinics’.

Between 1966 and 1967, the number of people being treated in Malawi out of the back of Land Rovers increased from 2806 to 5595.

Memorable phrases in period publications highlighted the emotional significance of the LEPRA Land Rovers. In 1970, LEPRA worker Ronald Heald wrote in the charity’s newsletter: ‘It is entirely due to the recent grants given by LEPRA, covering the cost of two Land Rovers, two motorcycles and running costs, that we have been able to expand our work into leprosy control and to go out to look for new cases in the villages.’

A 1974 edition of SHE magazine reads: ‘… so many medical assistants now have leprosy training that Lepra can soon move away from the south [of Malawi] and confidently let the work be continued in the ordinary village medical clinics. So now Lepra is setting its sights northwards and eastwards; perhaps that 15-year-old girl will yet see the Lepra Land Rover coming, and receive the treatment which will save her from deformity.’

A pithy diary of a LEPRA worker, published in Nursing Mirror in 1982, reads: ‘Proceed, driving the Land Rover accompanied by a leprosy control assistant and a clinical attendant. We have four roadside clinics en route before we arrive at the main clinic, held near the village headman’s house. Unload seats, folding table and other necessary equipment and begin clinic. A fairly good attendance today, although there are some defaulters. Some new cases report for examination. One new case of leprosy is diagnosed, and skin smears are taken. Clinics are held every two weeks and we try to arrange them so that no patient walks too far to attend.’

Uni student Henry de Lotbinière flew to Malawi in 1966 to spend his summer vacation mapping the country in a LEPRA Land Rover.

Bringing people together

Without treatment, leprosy causes severe, visible disabilities, leading to prejudice and ostracism. Treatment for leprosy was a drug called Dapsone which could cure the disease as long as it was taken regularly and for the prescribed length of time (up to 18 months for severe cases). It was therefore vital that patients felt comfortable coming forward to receive treatment.

That, says the charity, was one of the most important contributions of the LEPRA Land Rovers. The positive sense of community that the vehicles helped inspire was essential in breaking down stigma, ensuring people received the regular care they needed.

Thanks to LEPRA’s life-saving work, people with the disease no longer had to be banished to leprosaria (previously known as ‘colonies’); instead, they could remain with their communities. In 1969, Zambia’s Eastern Province was able to shut down two of its three leprosaria.

However, leprosy has not yet been eradicated (unlike smallpox), and the charity’s efforts are ongoing.

Series Land Rover owners – can you help?

LEPRA is getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024 and would like to find a UK-based Series Land Rover owner to take part. It’s hoped that the chosen vehicle could wear a replica of LEPRA’s period livery, and appear at events to help tell the charity’s story.

Period photos shows LEPRA Land Rovers in various body styles: Series IIA hardtops (88in and 109in) and a 109in Station Wagon being used in Malawi, and a later image of a Ninety in use in Tanzania. LEPRA is flexible about exactly what type of Land Rover is used for the centenary if a close match cannot be found.

Exact details are still being considered, but Royal venues are on the cards – including potentially St James’ Palace (a former ‘colony’ for those with leprosy) and the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show.

For more details about how to get involved with the centenary celebrations next year, please email LEPRA also has a museum in Essex containing more artefacts, photos and archive material.

A later LEPRA Ninety, provided by the Doundation of Swiss Civil Servants.
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