Perhaps one of the most well-known of today’s neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), leprosy is a sickness with roots that can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where it sometimes appeared in literature — often through tales of fear and ostracization.
While many may know its name, its effects are still sometimes misunderstood. One of the biggest myths with leprosy is that it’s a “flesh-eating disease” because of its appearance. In reality, the disease causes skin lesions and sensory loss so the person affected no longer feels pain in their extremities that are affected.
The infected were once deemed “unclean” and gathered into “leper colonies,” as it was previously thought that leprosy could be spread through skin-to-skin contact, like handshakes or hugs. This is not true — and the word "leper" is no longer an acceptable word to describe people with leprosy because of the long history of social stigma attached to it.
The method of transmission is still debated — it is possibly through droplets, via sneezing and coughing — but it is less infectious than originally assumed.
This lack of a sensation of pain means that people with leprosy are more susceptible to injuring themselves — through cuts or burns, for example. This, in turn, causes further damage to their limbs and can lead to amputation.
Leprosy is sometimes known as Hansen’s disease, after Gerhard Armauer Hansen, the Norwegian physician who discovered the bacteria that caused it, Mycobacterium leprae. This bacteria can spread through droplets, saliva, or mucus.
The disease develops slowly; it takes anywhere between five to 20 years for symptoms to appear, which is why it is hard to trace the source of infection. However, it is also widely reported that 95% of the human population is naturally immune to leprosy.
Moreover, thanks to modern therapy, the disease is now curable.
While leprosy control has significantly improved, it is far from being a disease of the past. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 new cases are reported every year. But the true number of cases may be even higher than that.
Many cases of leprosy go undiagnosed, for fear of stigma, Guillermo Robert, a monitoring, evaluation and learning officer at Lepra, a UK organization working to combat leprosy, told the Guardian.
“There’s a tendency to hide the disease, there’s a lack of access to health facilities, there’s a lack of knowledge — they don’t know the symptoms, so they don’t go to get treatment,” he said.
But there are efforts in place to combat and cure this disease.
Since 1995, the WHO has provided free multi-drug therapy for all people affected with leprosy worldwide. The drugs were initially funded by The Nippon Foundation, and since 2000 have been donated by Novartis, a global pharmaceutical company. The company recently committed to extend its donation to 2020.
The first step to a leprosy-free world is promoting inclusion and eliminating discrimination. This will encourage people to come forward for treatment — and with early treatment, the world could successfully prevent leprosy and avoid future disability.
"What You Don’t Know About X" is a new series focusing on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). NTDs are a cluster of parasitic and bacterial diseases. While you may have heard of a few of them, it’s likely you know very little about their actual effects or why they are so often overlooked. This series looks to shed light on these devastating — and preventable — diseases.