Acknowledge World Leprosy Day

An estimated two to three million people around the world are disabled because of leprosy.

It is a mildly infectious disease caused by a bacillus called Mycobacterium leprae (a relative of TB) and is most common in places of poverty.

Scientists are not 100 per cent sure how the disease is passed on.

It is not hereditary and cannot be caught by touch.

Most scientists believe it is caught through droplets of moisture passing through the air from someone who has leprosy but has not yet started treatment.

Symptoms can be slow to appear, and it may be five or 10 years before the disease appears after initial exposure.

The first signs are patches of skin which look paler than normal. Sometimes the person discovers nodules on the skin.

It can be difficult to diagnose and sometimes people are not diagnosed or treated quickly enough.

Leprosy damages the nerves in the cooler parts of the body, especially those near the skin that relate to the hands, feet and face.

If treated during the early stages, there will be no loss of sensation or paralysis, but if the nerves are damaged, then feeling and movement will not return. Leprosy can affect people in many ways, not just physically.

In some countries, largely due to myths and superstitions, there is a great deal of fear associated with leprosy. People diagnosed with the disease can be stigmatised, and rejected by their families and communities. They may lose their jobs and end up without a home or source of income.

Although there is no vaccine, leprosy is curable with Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT). Within two weeks of starting MDT there is no risk of the disease spreading to anyone else. These drugs need to be taken for either six or 12 month periods to be fully effective.

If leprosy is not treated, it will attack the larger nerves that supply feeling to the hands, feet, eyes and parts of the face. This means that when the person treads on something sharp or holds something hot, they do not feel pain and so they ignore their injuries.

They may also have paralysis so that eyes can’t close properly, and fingers and toes become bent which makes them even more vulnerable to injury that they can’t feel.

The word ‘leper’, like most labels, is offensive. People shouldn’t be defined by their disease. But leprosy through the ages has provoked great fear in many societies, largely because of misunderstanding.

This fear is still prevalent in some countries and stigma is an issue that leprosy-affected people have to face. For some it even means being rejected by their communities, or divorced from their spouse.

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