How can governments help to stop the transmission of leprosy?
Throughout 2020, governments across the world have been taking drastic action to stop the transmission of Covid-19. But what can they do to help stop the transmission of leprosy? The action doesn’t need to be as drastic as with Covid-19, but the right action could end the disease in our lifetime.
Step one: Investing in government staff
In countries that have many cases of leprosy, governments will have Leprosy Control Programmes (LCP). Strong LCPs are a crucial part of the fight to defeat leprosy. They run case-finding initiatives and distribute leprosy medication (multi-drug therapy/MDT) across the country. They are well placed to tap into the national health services and use those systems to distribute support, even in hard to reach places.
LCPs can influence government policy and train government health staff to spot the signs and symptoms of leprosy and get the right treatment to patients.
However, although many governments do have LCPs, many of them are underfunded. If we are to end leprosy by 2035, it is important that these vital programmes receive sufficient funding. Funding activities to find cases of leprosy before the disease can cause long-term damage and disabilities saves money in the long-term, as there will be fewer people with leprosy-related impairments, so less need for long-term costs such as providing physiotherapy, footwear, prosthetics, and disability pensions.
Step two: invest in leprosy research
Leprosy research is being conducted all over the world, looking into almost every aspect of the disease, including transmission. Our teams are working alongside others to develop new diagnostic tests for leprosy so that we can quickly diagnose a person there and then.
We are also working alongside many others on a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for leprosy. This, like Covid-19, has a lot to do with contact tracing. When we diagnose a person with leprosy, we also test their household members and close neighbours. If those contacts show signs of active leprosy then we treat them with MDT. If they do not have signs of active leprosy then we offer them PEP, which reduces their chances of developing leprosy by 50-60 percent.
Like with LCPs, government investment in leprosy research is vital to the growth of this work. Unlike LCPs, this is something that all governments can engage in, not just those that have large numbers of leprosy cases. Our experience of Covid-19 has shown what can be achieved with serious research investment into a disease. Even a small fraction of the amounts invested in Covid-19 research would be completely transformative for leprosy research.
Step three: educating the public
Once more, there are parallels with Covid-19 here. Leprosy is very different from Covid-19 in many respects, but like all infectious diseases, it is important that members of the public can recognise symptoms of the disease.
Governments should do what they can to ensure awareness of leprosy is high in areas that have high numbers of leprosy cases.
In all these areas, The Leprosy Mission will continue to work alongside governments to deliver services.
There are also many other ways governments can support people affected by leprosy, such as ending the discrimination they face and ensuring their social and economic inclusion in society, but these three steps are crucial to ending the transmission of the disease by 2035.