Hundreds of thousands are affected by leprosy every year. When diagnosed at the earliest sign, usually small patches on the skin, the disease can be treated and cured with multi-drug therapy – a combination of medicines taken for about a year. With treatment, there will usually be no other symptoms arising.
Leprosy, was renamed Hansens’s disease after Norwegian scientists Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, who discovered the disease in 1873. Said to be caused by a slow growing bacillus (rod shaped) bacterium known as Mycobacterium leprae, its chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the peripheral nerves, skin, upper respiratory tract, eyes and lining of the nose. The bacteria are transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth during close and frequent contact with untreated cases.
Since the 1980’s, when the WHO initiated its Leprosy Elimination Project, more than 14 million cases have been cured. However, the prevalence of leprosy in the world is now increasing with over 200,000 new cases reported by 141 countries in recent years leaving unanswered questions about the infection source, transmission and the incubation period of leprosy.
Left untreated, leprosy can be a thief. The disease damages the nervous system which means that affected people will lose their ability to feel. As the nervous system also helps the body to use our hands and fingers, enables us to walk and blink. As leprosy progresses, serious disabilities including loss of mobility, use of hands, and even blindness may occur. In addition, when a person can’t feel pain which often results in additional injuries or infections that can lead to amputation.
Leprosy is a disease that leaves lifelong scars in more than one way. Suffers are discriminated against, face fear and rejection from family or community and often lose their jobs. Without cure and care, people live in poverty and destitution on the margins of society.
World Leprosy Day is observed on the last Sunday of January. Established in 1954 by French philanthropist Raooul Follereau, it aims to raise awareness about Hansen’s disease and teach people that this ancient disease is easily curable.
While rare in North America, many people around the world continue to suffer due to lack of access to basic medical care and continued stigma surrounding the illness.
Today, researchers are exploring more avenues to discover new reservoirs of infection, routes of transmission and incubation periods so that the disease can be stopped before symptoms appear and nerve damage occurs.
Busting the myths….
Myth #1: Leprosy is highly contagious.
One of the most persistent beliefs about leprosy is that it is highly contagious. However, this is not the case. In fact, leprosy is relatively difficult to contract and is primarily spread through prolonged contact with an infected person.
Myth #2: Leprosy only affects people in developing countries.
Another common myth is that leprosy is a disease that only affects people in developing countries. However, leprosy is a global problem and affects people all over the world. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were around 210,000 new cases of leprosy reported in 2020, with the majority of cases occurring in South East Asia.
Myth #3: Leprosy no longer exists.
The oldest disease known to man is still around today. While most high income countries are almost completely free of leprosy, the disease still exists in large pockets around the globe. The largest number of cases are found in Asia, Africa, and South America. Around 200,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year and millions more live with the consequences.
Myth #4: Leprosy is a curse, the result of sin, or punishment from God.
Leprosy is simply a bacterial infection transmitted from the environment or an individual. It does not discriminate based on race, gender, class, age, or religion. It has nothing to do with curses or sin.
Myth #5: Leprosy makes bits of your body fall off.
The disease itself does not cause parts of the body to fall off; however, severe inflammatory reactions caused by untreated cuts can lead to amputation.
Myth #6: Only poor people get leprosy.
Leprosy affects individuals with weakened immune systems. The disease often spreads in poorer areas due to poor sanitation and nutrition, but it all depends on a person’s predisposition and the state of their immune system. It can affect the wealthy as well as the poor.
Myth #7: Leprosy is incurable.
Leprosy is curable with treatment known as multi-drug therapy, or MDT. After receiving MDT for 72 hours, the treatment prevents the disease from spreading and the leprosy is no longer infectious.
Myth #8: You shouldn’t touch anyone with leprosy because it’s highly contagious.
Leprosy is only a mildly infectious disease that 95 percent of the world’s population is already immune to. Leprosy is not easily transmitted and those affected by it are not “untouchable”. Once a person has received Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) for 72 hours, they are no longer infectious.
Myth #9: Only old people are affected by leprosy.
Leprosy is not age specific. It can affect anyone at any point in time. People probably believe in this misconception because of the long incubation period of leprosy causing bacteria and extremely delayed visible signs and symptoms.
The Leprosy Mission International is a Christian mission with almost 150 years of experience. Founded in 1874, it’s the worlds largest and oldest leprosy focused organization with activities in 30 countries around the world. Headquarters are based in the UK.