Leprosy still exists. Over 200,000 people are still being diagnosed with the disease each year.
Leprosy is not a disease of the past. It's a midly infectious disease and a cure is available.
Leprosy 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.
The first signs of leprosy are pale or reddish patches on the skin. Sometimes a person with leprosy discovers nodules on their skin. It can be difficult to diagnose and The Leprosy Mission works with governments around the world to ensure medical staff know what to look for and how to treat the disease.
If left untreated, leprosy goes on to damage the large nerves in the elbow, wrist, knee and ankle. The resulting damage can lead to loss of sensation in the hands and feet and muscle paralysis, which causes clawed fingers and foot drop. Loss of sensation in the hands and feet means everyday activities are fraught with danger – burns go unrecognised and stones in shoes unnoticed leading to ulcers developing. These can be difficult to heal and become infected, often leading to the shortening of fingers and toes or ultimately, amputation of limbs.
Leprosy can damage nerves in the face causing the eyelid muscles to stop working. The eyes are no longer protected by the blinking mechanism and can become easily damaged, which eventually leads to blindness. Leprosy can also damage the bones of the nose causing it to collapse and flatten, a common facial trait witnessed in people affected by leprosy.
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. Even today leprosy-affected people may end up living as outcasts in leprosy colonies. 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.
An effective cure for leprosy has been available since 1982 in the form of multidrug therapy – a combination of three drugs taken daily for six to 12 months. But while treatment halts the progression of this cruel disease, it cannot turn the clock back in terms of disability.
There have been amazing medical breakthroughs that enable us to help people who have been disabled due to leprosy in a variety of ways. A clawed hand or foot-drop can often be restored with surgery and physiotherapy, though they can’t restore feeling. Surgery can also restore eyelid muscles so a person can blink again. To protect insensitive feet and hands, 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. By following these self-care exercises, injury and further disability can be avoided. Customised mobility aids and special protective shoes are also available for people that need them.
A diagnosis of leprosy can affect a person physically, emotionally, economically and socially. The Leprosy Mission offers counselling, self-help groups, micro-finance, skills training, education and other opportunities to help people affected by leprosy live life to the full.
Every two minutes, one person is diagnosed with leprosy
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. Around 95% of the world’s population are naturally immune to leprosy.
According to the latest World Health Organisation statistics, there were 208,619 new cases of leprosy diagnosed globally in 2018* – around one every two minutes. More than half of these new diagnoses were in India. Due to the reluctance of leprosy patients to seek treatment because of the stigma surrounding the disease, we regard these figures as understated. Experts consider the actual figure to be three or four times higher than this.
Fear: 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.
Lack of healthcare: 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. 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. Lack of leprosy knowledge and expertise can lead to misdiagnosis.
Poverty is also a major challenge. Some people cannot afford to take a day off work to go to a clinic, or to rest and heal when needed. 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.
*latest statistics available
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.
The Leprosy Mission Northern Ireland is committed to eradicating leprosy, one of 18 diseases formally recognised as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD).