What is leprosy?

 
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Want to know more about leprosy? Read our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions below.

Does leprosy still exist?
Which countries is leprosy found in today?
How is leprosy passed on?
What are the symptoms?
How does having leprosy affect someone physically?
How is leprosy treated?
What happens if the person doesn’t have access to a hospital or health centre?
Once someone has lost feeling in their hands or feet, can it be restored?
What about the word ‘leper’ – is it okay to use it? 

Does leprosy still exist?

Yes – it’s not just people in the Bible who experienced leprosy. Every year between two and three hundred thousand people are diagnosed with it and an estimated two to three million people around the world are disabled because of it. Leprosy is a mildly infectious disease caused by a bacillus called Mycobacterium leprae (a relative of TB). It is most common in places of poverty – dirty water, poor nutrition and low standards of living mean people’s immune systems are not strong and they are unable to fight the disease.
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Which countries is leprosy found in today?

Mainly in countries where there are high levels of poverty. See the map below for an overview of the number of new cases of leprosy detected around the world in 2010 (latest figures available).

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How is leprosy passed on?

Scientists are not 100 per cent sure. 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 ten years before the disease appears after initial exposure.
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What are the symptoms?

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. The Leprosy Mission has a lot of expertise in diagnosing leprosy and so works with governments around the world to ensure that medical staff know what to look for and how to treat it.
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How does having leprosy affect someone physically?

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, rejected by their families and communities, they may lose their jobs and end up without a home or source of income. The Leprosy Mission cares for the whole person – we are a holistic charity, focusing on the physical, social, spiritual, and psychological needs of leprosy-affected people.
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How is leprosy treated?

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. The drugs are free of charge.
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What happens if the person doesn’t have access to a hospital or health centre?

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 Leprosy Mission is dedicated to ensuring that people in high risk areas have access to the services they need to treat the physical effects of leprosy as well as the social and psychological effects.
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Once someone has lost feeling in their hands or feet, can it be restored?

A clawed hand or foot-drop can be restored with surgery, massage and physiotherapy. Surgery can also restore eyelid muscles so a person can blink again. But it can’t restore feeling. People are encouraged to look after themselves by soaking their feet regularly, oiling their skin to make it softer and checking daily for any wounds.
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What about the word ‘leper’ – is it okay to use it?

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. So TLM is working hard to change these wrong attitudes.   

It can be tough for people affected by leprosy to get the help they need. TLM works with leprosy-affected people empowering them to overcome physical obstacles, to make a living and to bring change to their communities.
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FACTFILE
  • 232, 857 new cases of leprosy were reported in 2012*
    *WHO figures, latest available
  • Every two minutes one person is diagnosed with leprosy
  • Globally, an estimated two-three million people have leprosy-related disabilities

TLM's work in numbers
In 2013*:

  • 2,560 self-help group co-operatives were supported by TLM
  • 4,358 children or young people received formal education supplied or funded by TLM
  • 1,720 young people received vocational training or apprenticeships
  • 12,132 leprosy-affected inpatients were treated at TLM's hospitals
  • 1,919 leprosy-related reconstructive surgeries were carried out
  • 450 low-cost homes were built or renovated by TLM or partners using TLM funding
  • 30,094 people were provided with footwear by TLM and TLM-funded partners

*latest figures available

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