About Leprosy

Often considered a disease of the past, leprosy in fact continues to affect millions of people around the world, with hundreds of thousands of new diagnoses every year, and many known to continue undiagnosed. Leprosy is curable, not highly contagious, and most people have a natural immunity to it, but a lack of knowledge and understanding about the disease is one of the key challenges as we seek to defeat it entirely.

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What is leprosy?

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 – overcrowding and poor nutrition mean people’s immune systems are not strong and they are less able to fight the disease.

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How leprosy affects people

The first signs of leprosy are patches of skin which look paler than normal or sometimes nodules on the skin. It can be difficult to diagnose and sometimes people are misdiagnosed. The Leprosy Mission is experienced in diagnosing leprosy and works with governments around the world to ensure that medical staff are adequately trained.

If leprosy is not treated it will attack the nerves that supply feeling to the hands, feet, eyes and parts of the face. This means that when people injure themselves they do not feel pain so don’t notice their injury. Untreated leprosy can also cause muscle weakness and paralysis, leading to ‘clawed hand’, when the fingers weaken and curl up; ‘foot-drop’, when the muscles that lift the feet no longer work properly; or inability to close the eyes due to paralysis of the eyelids. These effects put a person affected by leprosy at high risk of further damage.

Some people experience reactions to the leprosy bacteria still present in their body, even once those bacteria are no longer active. These reactions can cause pain, sickness, swelling of the skin and fever, and are hard to treat.

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 source of income, some lose their homes. 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.

Where leprosy is found

Based on latest statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Annual new cases of leprosy

  • color10,000+
  • color1,000 - 9,999
  • color100 - 999
  • color1 - 99
  • colorNo new cases
  • colorNo data available
Source: WHO 2015
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More than 200,000 new cases of leprosy are detected each year

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Treating the disease

Multi-drug therapy (MDT), the WHO recommended treatment for leprosy, emerged in the early 1980s and is highly effective and freely available. This combination of antibiotics includes rifampicin, dapsone and clofazamine and is currently made available free of charge by Novartis through the World Health Organization. Within two days of a patient starting MDT treatment there is no risk of the disease spreading to anyone else. These drugs need to be taken every day for either six or twelve months.

Today’s challenges

In some of the countries where The Leprosy Mission works, the myths around leprosy and fear of rejection by family and friends can prevent people coming forward for diagnosis and treatment, putting them at higher risk of nerve damage and disability. Leprosy can also affect people in rural and isolated areas which lack healthcare and infrastructure – the nearest clinic or hospital may be several days’ walk away, making treatment challenging. Poverty is also a major challenge. Some cannot afford to take even a day off work to go to a clinic, or to rest and heal when needed. Poor knowledge of general health in communities also poses difficulties, both in seeking an accurate diagnosis and in successfully following treatment and self-care plans. And in some of the areas where we work, conflict and insecurity pose a risk both to leprosy-affected people and The Leprosy Mission’s staff.

How leprosy is transmitted

Scientists are not 100% sure how leprosy is passed on, and research is ongoing. Most scientists believe that leprosy is caught through droplets of moisture passing through the air from someone who has untreated leprosy. Symptoms can be slow to appear and it may be five or ten years before the disease appears after initial exposure. There is a higher likelihood of transmission where people have close and ongoing contact – for example, living in the same house. Leprosy is also more prevalent where overall nutrition and hygiene is lower. However, around 95% of the world’s population are naturally immune to leprosy.

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