Mike Thomas, 65, is the Swindon area’s representative for The Leprosy Mission, a charity devoted to combating the disease in many countries, including Nepal, which was hit last year by a major earthquake. The charity is running a special appeal called Rebuild Nepal. Mike lives in Uffington and is married with two grown-up children and a granddaughter.

A MAJOR obstacle for The Leprosy Mission is the fact that many people don’t know the disease still exists.

“If I had a pound,” said Mike Thomas, “for every time I’ve heard someone say they thought leprosy was a biblical disease and not one of the 21st century, I’d have enough money to treat every leper in the world.”

Why does this misconception exist?

“I think it’s probably because we don’t see it in England and haven’t for decades. Indeed, most of Europe is now leprosy-free.

“It’s very much a disease of the Third World, poor communities, poor nutrition, poor sanitation.

“We have a natural immunity to it because we’re well-nourished and live in hygienic conditions.”

Another misconception about the disease is that it causes parts of the body to simply fall off.

“It’s a disease of the nerves in the extremities of the body, the colder parts of the body,” said Mike.

“It particularly attacks the fingers and the toes but it can also attack the face and the eyelids. It can destroy the blinking mechanism and eventually turn a person blind.

“Fingers don’t drop off with leprosy.

“What actually happens is that they lose feeling in their digits, so for example they can burn their hands without realising.

“They can cut their feet on stones without realising, and then it gets infected and eventually in extreme cases infection can require amputation.

“You will see people with stumps for hands and feet. Before it gets to that extreme — clawed hands are quite a common thing.”

Mike is originally from London. His father was a commercial artist and his mother a secretary and office staff trainer.

Mike retired at 60 after a career as an actuary – a specialist financial analyst.

He came to the Swindon area in 1988 at the start of a long stint with Burmah.

He saw retirement as an opportunity to do the things he had always wanted to do. Helping others was high on the list of priorities.

In addition to his Leprosy Mission work, Mike volunteers for Sightsavers and writes letters for Amnesty International on behalf of people facing oppression and injustice.

He is a trustee and former chairman of Swindon Foodbank, and is heavily involved with its parent charity, Swindon Christian Community Projects. Mike has been a practising member of the Church of England since his 20s, and his faith influences his voluntary work.

“The Bible says ‘Love thy neighbour’ and we are urged to think of those who are less fortunate than ourselves. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a good job, I’ve retired on a reasonable pension and it gives me the opportunity to do something for others.”

He is in his third year with The Leprosy Mission.

“Leprosy is a forgotten and neglected disease.

“I felt I wanted to do something to increase people’s awareness of it. The second thing is that I very much like charities that – to use that American expression – give plenty of bang for your buck, and £24 to cure someone and change their life seems pretty good value to me.”

Also appealing for Mike is the fact that the charity is Christian – although it serves people of all faiths and none. The £24 he cites is the average cost of finding and reaching sufferers, who are then given drugs.

Unlike polio and smallpox, for example, there is no vaccine for leprosy, so eradicating the disease is far more difficult. Thanks to vaccination there are less than 1,000 new cases of polio each year and smallpox is confined to lab cultures of the virus.

In contrast, there are between 200,000 and 250,000 new cases of leprosy each year. The number is declining, although probably by only a few thousand cases annually. Research suggests that for every acknowledged sufferer there is at least one who is undiagnosed, as sufferers and their families fear the associated stigma. The total number of people identified as living with the effects of leprosy is around three million.

“In many societies they are outcasts,” said Mike. “Wives are divorced by their husbands; children will be thrown out by their families; people will be denied access to the community well. It’s irrational, but in some places they say, ‘Oh, this person has done something wrong, therefore God has cursed them.’ “There is a fear that it will be transmitted by touching. That is not the case. You may remember there was an iconic photograph of Princess Diana shaking hands with a leper. It’s actually airborne and transmitted through bodily fluids.”

The country with the most cases is India, followed by Indonesia and Brazil. The disease is found in more than 100 countries, including African, Asian and South American nations.

Although there is no vaccine, its course can be easily arrested using a combination of three drugs taken for between six and 12 months. Within 48 hours of starting the course, patients are no longer infectious. Much of the work of The Leprosy Mission, an international organisation, consists of giving this treatment.

The drugs themselves are provided free of charge by a pharmaceutical company called Novartis.

“That’s really generous,” said Mike, “but we still have to find the people first of all. Often they are in remote communities, they can’t get to medical centres or their families have hidden them away.

“We have to set up centres and make sure people come in and take their drugs. That’s what we are spending our money on.”

The charity welcomes donations and fundraising ideas – and all efforts to publicise the plight of sufferers.

“Mike himself is happy to give talks for churches, schools and other groups.

“People can just talk to their friends and family and increase awareness – and try and dispel this myth that leprosy is a thing of the past.

“There is still work to be done.” The charity’s website is leprosymission.org.uk.