What is leprosy?

Leprosy is a disease caused by bacteria Mycobacterium leprae . Leprosy is often also known as Hansen's disease, after the discoverer of the bacterium. Although in ancient history, the term leprosy has been used to denote a wide range of conditions causing boils, sores, or other skin diseases, in modern usage it refers exclusively to Hansen's disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae . Although the exact mode of transmission of leprosy is unknown, most people believe that the bacteria passes through moisture that emanates from the body.

There are two prevalent myths about leprosy, both of which are completely false. The first is that leprosy is incurable. In truth, leprosy is treatable through the use of a drug regimen. The first real treatments for leprosy, using a drug called dapsone, were established in the 1940s. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides this Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) to any country that needs it as part of its continued efforts to eliminate leprosy as a global health problem.

The second myth is that leprosy is extremely contagious. In reality, most people are naturally immune to the disease, and for those who are not, transmission is still unlikely. It is estimated that more than 90% of the world population has total immunity to leprosy. For those who are susceptible, close contact with infected people is recommended, particularly those exhibiting strong signs of illness. However, transmission is by no means as easy as most people believe: in the popular mind, mere contact with a leper virtually guarantees infection, a scenario that is highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Since the World Health Organization has made a determined effort to eliminate the threat of leprosy worldwide, the incidence of the disease has been drastically reduced. Between 2003 and 2004 there was a reduction of more than 20% in new cases, to just over 400,000 worldwide. Of the remaining cases of leprosy, the majority are in Africa, Latin America and Asia, with almost 90% of all leprosy cases in Nepal, Brazil, Madagascar, Mozambique and Tanzania. India has proven to be a strong model of what education and drug spending can do to eliminate leprosy, and the number of cases in that country has dropped tremendously in just a few years.

One of the most difficult challenges for groups like the World Health Organization in their fight against leprosy to overcome is the deep-seated social stigma associated with the disease. In many cultures, leprosy is seen as divine punishment, and those affected are often marginalized from society as a whole. Leper colonies and asylums have existed in many countries for hundreds of years as places for a group to send their lepers and leave them to die of the disease in exile. While leper colonies exist primarily in developing countries such as the Philippines and India, the Japanese government has come under heavy criticism in recent years for its own colonies.

Overall, the global outlook for leprosy appears to be very favourable, with the World Health Organization's "Final Push" program making significant inroads, even in countries once thought to be beyond assistance. If things continue as they are, leprosy may go the way of smallpox and polio, becoming nothing more than a historical artifact.

Go up