Someone is diagnosed with leprosy every 2 minutes.
Leprosy is found all over the world – sometimes even in Australia. It is most common in places of poverty. Overcrowding and poor nutrition means people’s immune systems are not strong and they are less able to fight the disease.
According to the World Health Organisation, India has the highest caseload of leprosy in the world, followed by Brazil and India.
It is estimated that in India, there are:
Leprosy is classified as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NDT) by The World Health Organisation (WHO). Also known as ‘Hansen’s Disease’ after the scientist who discovered the cause.
Leprosy is caused by bacteria – either Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis – it can affect people differently depending on their own level of immunity.
Research suggests the bacteria is not spread through touch alone but through prolonged, regular exposure to a person carrying the disease. It is thought to be most likely transmitted through water borne droplets (coughing and sneezing).
Leprosy may be initially seen as discoloured skin patches or as raised nodules but it can often take 1 – 20 years of incubation before any visible or physical effects are noticed.
Sometimes the cartilage which shapes and supports the nose can be destroyed and the nose can collapse.
Hair follicles can be affected causing eye brows to drop out. This means sweat and water can get more easily into the eyes obscuring vision. In some cultures, having no eyebrows is seen as a disgrace.
Leprosy can attack and destroy the nerves in the body, especially in the hands, feet and face resulting in loss of feeling and/or function.
If leprosy is not correctly diagnosed or medical attention is not sought or provided, the nerve damage can result in problems that can be permanent. Ulcers on the hands or feet that won’t heal, deformities of hands with clawed fingers and abnormal function of the feet so they can no longer walk normally because of a drop foot or similar condition.
Reconstructive surgery and physiotherapy can make a huge difference for many people. But in some cases where the disease has been neglected and severe infection and ulceration has occurred, amputation may be the only option. An artificial limb may be possible to provide increased function and mobility.
The leprosy bacteria can attack the eye itself and the nerves around the eye and the eyelids causing paralysis. If unable to close the eyes, debris and insects can easily cause damage, eventually leading to permanent blindness.
When someone is affected by leprosy, those around them may isolate or reject them (or even their whole family) out of fear and lack of understanding. Relationships, marriages and families can breakdown. Communities may divide. It can even have a bearing on marriage prospects.
Dealing with the disease itself can cause a great amount of stress and fear. Feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, depression or worse are not uncommon for people affected by leprosy. Counselling for individuals and their families can be beneficial.
Myths around leprosy still exist in most countries. Fear of rejection by family and friends can prevent people seeking diagnosis and treatment. That puts them at higher risk of nerve damage and disability.
Community Education in general health, sanitation and leprosy is essential. By eradicating stigma, those affected can integrate into their communities and get on with living life.
Leprosy is most often found in communities where there is widespread poverty, limited access to health care and where nutrition and general health is poor. Lack of education, poor sanitation, geographic isolation and meagre incomes all contribute to an increased risk of infection. Providing sanitation and access to clean water is imperative.
For people affected by leprosy and/or disability, the stigma that they face can thrust them deeper into the cycle of poverty as they are prevented from working to support themselves or their families. Education and training can make a real difference.
With a course of Multi Drug Therapy (MDT), usually over the course of 12 months, a person affected by leprosy can be cured. In fact, within 48 hours of beginning the treatment they are no longer infectious and pose no threat of passing on the disease to those around them.
If diagnosed and treated early enough, they should have few, if any, ongoing problems.
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