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Leprosy Is Still a Health Problem to This Day, Even Though It's Been 'Cured'

CARLY CASSELLA
24 FEB 2019

Leprosy is often considered an ancient malady no longer relevant in the modern day and age. In 2000, this chronic and infectious skin disease was even declared eliminated as a global public health problem.

 

But while it's true that leprosy is now entirely preventable and curable, this stubborn disease refuses to accept its defeat.

Today, over four million people live with leprosy-related disabilities, and it remains one of the leading causes of long-term nerve damage worldwide.

And even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) now offers highly effective leprosy treatments free of charge, the organisation reports there have been between 200,000 to 300,000 new cases detected globally every year since 2005.

So while we might have eliminated leprosy practically, the findings suggest there are still pockets of the disease that have persisted. Of all the new diagnoses made in 2016, two-thirds were from India, and 18,472 involved children.

"It is a harsh reality that nine out of every 100 new cases diagnosed today are children," said Erwin Cooreman, the Leader of WHO's Global Leprosy Programme in 2018.

"The world has the tools, the right medicines and the political will – yet we are falling short of detecting the disease in time, particularly among children." 

Leprosy is tropical disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, which multiplies very slowly. If left untreated, this infection can creep up on its patients, causing muscle weakness, skin sores, and blindness. It can even damage a person's nerve endings, destroying their ability to feel pain and injury.

 

Over the past 20 years, more than 16 million patients have been treated for leprosy, but even though we have all the tools at hand to wipe this disease off the face of our planet, some people are still falling through the cracks.

At least part of the problem may have to do with leprosy's long history of oppression and discrimination. Nowadays, we know that the disease is harder to contract than we once thought, possibly requiring repeated contact with nose and mouth fluids.

It's not even close to the contagion that once prompted us to develop leprosy colonies, like the notorious ones on Hawaii.

Still, these stereotypes are hard to shake, and negative attitudes towards the illness have continued to persist, stopping many people from coming forward and getting treated.

In fact, it's thought that only half of all leprosy cases are being detected and treated, leaving millions with a disease that could potentially cause long-term disability.

Between 2006 and 2015, WHO says the number of people with leprosy that have visible deformities increased by 13 percent, which means the disease is not only continuing to spread, it is also going untreated.

 

In countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil, where leprosy is more common, the social stigma is especially great. Here, some believe that leprosy is a form of punishment for sinful acts or immoral behaviour, and this can often lead to social exclusion and family rejection.

India itself still has 700 leper colonies in order to keep these people out of the way. Plus, the nation also has discriminatory laws specifically aimed at those with leprosy.

This means that people with leprosy are often denied access to markets and educational institutions. These laws might even limit a person's ability to access treatment for the disease itself.

"Leprosy is not highly contagious or easily spread, and most people have immunity against the disease," assures Spencer Bezalel, a dermatologist who recently conducted research on leprosy in the US for the Mayo Clinic.

His findings uncovered nine patients in the US who were evaluated and treated for leprosy between 1994 and 2017 - some of whom had emigrated from tropical regions and others who were born in the US itself.

Bezalel says that while these cases should not be taken lightly, most people are safe from leprosy, and that it is those with poor or developing immune systems that we should be the most worried about.

This is probably why the WHO aims to achieve zero child leprosy infections by 2020, calling for greater early detection efforts.

"Leprosy in children clearly shows that transmission of the infection is occurring in many communities and that detection efforts are inadequate," added Cooreman.

"We again re-emphasize the importance of periodic follow-up, contact tracing and monitoring of everyone in a household where a case is detected."

It's about time we put this disease and all the stigma it carries to rest.