All of us have heard about leprosy, and usually associate it with a sickly and deformed person, shying away from the world at large. But there is more to the condition than just deformity. The stigma attached with the disease prevents the afflicted from being productive members of the society and pushes them into poverty.
Currently 1,34,752 new cases are detected in India in the first quarter of 2013. The number of women afflicted by the disease is a lot more than the number of men and over thirteen thousand children have been found to be afflicted with this disease. Read more about the number of leprosy cases in India.
Leprosy is one of the oldest and most stigmatised diseases the world over. It is also known as Hansen’s Disease named after the scientist who discovered it – Armauer Hansen. It is a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the nervous system and numbs the extremities in the exposed parts of the body like the hands, feet and face.
The disease is caused by a rod-shaped bacterium known as Mycobacterium leprae. The most common symptom is the occurrence of paled patches on skin without sensitivity.
It is believed to be transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth. But unlike other infectious diseases it spreads only with repeated and close contact with the infected person, and only untreated patients pose a risk. If an infected person seeks treatment, from the very first dose itself the amount of bacteria in the person reduces drastically.
In India, ninety to ninety five per cent people are naturally immune to the disease, hence leprosy is not highly infectious. According to WHO the condition is classified into to two –
Paucibacillary: Where no bacteria are detected in the skin lesions
Multibacillary: Where there are more than five lesions on the person’s body that are positive for the presence of bacteria.
The symptoms of the condition include – patches on the skin that are insensitive to touch or any sensation. The classic sign is that the patch will be devoid of hair or sweat and will not feel any heat, cold or pin pricks. These symptoms remain constant for the following types of the disease.
The diagnosis of leprosy is fairly simple. When a person visits his/her doctor a physical examination is usually more than enough to diagnose the person. According to the WHO, if a person visits a doctor in an endemic area with the classic symptoms of leprosy, he should be considered as suffering from the disease.
In case a doctor does want to confirm the diagnosis he/she may advice a skin smear to be done. This is a procedure where a sample is taken from the patient and tested for the presence of the bacterium.
This is usually advised in rare cases.
Leprosy is curable through Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT)
and in India it is available free of cost at any government health centre. MDT is a combination of three drugs, i.e. clofazimine, rifampicin and dapsone which are taken over the course of 6-24 months.
Early diagnosis and treatment with Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) prevents permanent disabilities by curing the disease before it causes deformities. It is also one of the best ways to eliminate it as a public threat.
Read about new vaccine offers protection against tuberculosis, leprosy.
If left untreated leprosy can cause the fingers and toes to deform and form a claw shape by curling inward. Leprosy also affects the eyes, making it difficult for the patient to blink, therefore causing blindness.
It can also cause permanent ulcers and infections in the hands and feet which often occur when cuts, bruises and burns are ignored because the person does not feel any pain.