What is Leprosy?

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Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) is a chronic, infectious disease involving the skin and nerves of infected individuals. Pale patches on the skin are usually the first sign of the disease – they are painless and do not itch, so are often ignored by the patient.

In the past, nerve damage and other complications occurred as the disease progressed. The numbness and lack of feeling in the limbs often led to festering wounds on the hands and feet, and then to the characteristic deformities of the face and limbs. In many communities this led to stigma towards those affected and their families, causing them to be shunned and even excluded from everyday life.

Fortunately, antibiotics can now quickly kill the bacteria (germs) that cause leprosy, so the disease can be completely cured with a few months of treatment. If this is started at an early stage, most patients need never suffer the terrible complications which used to be common. Nerve damage does still occur in some patients, but it can often be reversed with other medical treatment. When it cannot be reversed and the person remains with some disability, there are many different strategies of rehabilitation to help them live as normal a life as possible.

How do you catch leprosy?

Leprosy is probably spread like the common cold, but is much less contagious than the cold, or influenza. You really have to live for some years in an endemic area, where new cases of leprosy are continually being detected, to run the risk of catching it. In a study of new cases being put on treatment in the United Kingdom, it was found that all of them had lived abroad in a country with leprosy for at least eight years.

Wasn’t leprosy common in Europe at one time?

Evidence of leprosy has been found in skeletons from the ancient Near East and it became a common disease in Europe in medieval times. The disease died out in most of Europe for reasons which are not clear, more than 200 years ago, although there were significant numbers of new cases in Norway until the early years of the 20th century.

Where does leprosy occur nowadays?

Leprosy remains endemic in poorer parts of the world. In 2006 there were approximately 260000 new cases reported world wide.

India currently has about 54% of all the new leprosy cases in the world, followed by Brazil with about 17%, then Indonesia with about 7%. Other countries reporting more than 1000 new cases in 2006 include: Angola, Bangladesh, China, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

In considering the impact of leprosy it is not only the numbers of new cases being detected and treated that has to be taken into account. Many of those cured of the disease will have to live with the consequences of leprosy. It is estimated that probably at least 3 million people are living with some permanent disability due to leprosy, although the exact figure is unknown.

Leprosy research has been given a great boost by the decoding of the genome of Mycobacterium leprae, the causative organism. This gives hope that more effective ways of managing the disease and its complications will be developed and that effective methods of prevention can be found. In the meantime, efforts are being made everywhere to change attitudes, so that leprosy is seen as a disease like any other, which can be treated through the general health services, just as other diseases are.