Leprosy is a disease caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria. This bacterium affects the body’s nervous system, concentrating on the cooler parts of the body. Affected areas are skin, eyes, and muscles in the hands and feet. There are two different initial reactions to the disease; some people develop clearly defined pale skin patches indicating the bacterium is isolated in one area. In more extreme cases where the patient has no resistance to the disease, there is very little definition between the patches and the healthy skin. With these type of cases, it is much more difficult to detect the disease in is early stages.
As the disease progresses, the symptoms only get worse; numbness in hands and feet make the patient vulnerable to cuts and infections that can’t be felt; stiffened muscles cause clawed hands, loss of the blinking reflex leads to total blindness, and in some cases amputation of fingers, an arm or leg is necessary.
Leprosy is thought to be infectious, transmitted through airborne droplets, such as when someone sneezes or coughs. But most people – about 95% of the population – are naturally immune. Yet there are over 1,100 new cases detected every day.
People who contract leprosy are affected both physically and socially. This disease has been around since Biblical times and the myths, fear and stigma surrounding it still remains strong. From small children to older adults, people with leprosy are ostracized, shamed and forced out of their communities and homes. The person with the disease is usually so humiliated and frightened they go into hiding, failing to get treatment as the disease worsens.
Although the disease is not yet fully understood, there is a cure. A blend of drugs known as Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) is effective in killing all known strains of leprosy bacteria. MDT is given to patients for 6 months up to two years, depending on the severity and progression of the disease.
Leprosy carries with it the greater disability of stigma and prejudice which impacts the physical, social and economic well-being of patients and families.