What Is Leprosy?
Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is a chronic disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Named after physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen, leprosy is primarily a disease of the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract; skin lesions are the primary external sign and it can also affect the eyes. Left untreated, leprosy can be progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Contrary to folklore, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off, although they can become numb or diseased as a result of secondary infections; these occur as a result of the body's defenses being compromised by the primary disease. Secondary infections, in turn, can result in tissue loss causing fingers and toes to become shortened and deformed, as cartilage is absorbed into the body
How Is Leprosy Spread?
Although the mode of transmission of Hansen's disease remains uncertain, most investigators think that M. leprae is usually spread from person to person in respiratory droplets. Leprosy is not known to be either sexually transmitted or highly infectious after treatment. Approximately 95% of people are naturally immune and sufferers are no longer infectious after as little as 2 weeks of treatment.
The minimum incubation period reported is as short as a few weeks, based on the very occasional occurrence of leprosy among young infants. The maximum incubation period reported is as long as 30 years, or over, as observed among war veterans known to have been exposed for short periods in endemic areas but otherwise living in non-endemic areas. It is generally agreed that the average incubation period is between three and five years.
There is no vaccination against leprosy. Leprosy is often found in conditions connected with poverty, overcrowding, poor sanitation and insufficient nutrition.
What Are The Effects Of Leprosy?
The disease attacks the nerves and leaves the sufferer without sensation so they do not feel pain. Therefore, they can easily injure their limbs causing serious wounds and deformities, which if left untreated, can even result in amputation.
Because there was no cure until the 1950s, leprosy became a highly stigmatized disease. The physical ailments and deformities caused rejection resulting in low self esteem. The disease is now curable and if caught at an early stage will not result in significant deformity.
Treatment And Prevention
Today, the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy is easy and most endemic countries are striving to fully integrate leprosy services into existing general health services. This is especially important for those under-served and marginalised communities most at risk from leprosy, often the poorest of the poor.
Access to information, diagnosis and treatment with multi-drug therapy (MDT) remain key elements in the strategy to eliminate the disease as a public health problem. MDT treatment, which has been made available by the World Health Organisation free of charge to all patients worldwide since 1995, provides a simple yet highly effective cure for all types of leprosy.
What are the social effects of leprosy?
Since ancient times, leprosy has been regarded by the community as a contagious, mutilating and incurable disease. There are many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America with a significant number of leprosy cases. It is estimated that there are between one and two million people visibly and irreversibly disabled due to past and present leprosy who require to be cared for by the community in which they live.
Leprosy once affected every continent and it has left behind a terrifying image in history and human memory - stories of mutilation, rejection and exclusion from society.
Leprosy has struck fear into human beings for thousands of years. A cumulative total of the number of individuals who, over the millennia, have suffered its chronic course of incurable disfigurement and physical disabilities can never be calculated.