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Did you know that leprosy or Hansen's disease, the chronic inflammatory disease of the skin and the peripheral nerves, originated in India and spread to the rest of the world through trade and war? Also known as kushta rog in Sanskrit, leprosy finds its earliest mentions in the Atharva Veda and Laws of Manu around 2000 BC and 1500 BC respectively. But despite the disease's long presence in the country, India and Indians have a very poor understanding about the disease. Here are some facts about Hansen's disease or leprosy. Misconceptions and stigma surrounding leprosy pose challenges not only to the health of lepers but also towards the complete eradication of the disease in the country. Following are some of the myths about leprosy we should stop believing in.
1. All cases of leprosy are contagious
Since leprosy is poorly understood in the country, people treat lepers as outcasts, thinking that leprosy could spread through touch. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention state that 95 percent of adults cannot catch leprosy because human immune system is powerful enough to fend off mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria that cause leprosy. Dr Umashankar Nagaraju, Honourable Secretary General, Indian Association of Dermatologists, Venereologist and Leprologists (IADVL) says that there are two varieties of leprosy: tuberculoid and lepromatous, of which only lepromatous is contagious. "For contagion, the contact has to be constant. It is spread through infected nasal and oral droplets of untreated patients," he adds.
2. Leprosy is incurable
Many people think that being diagnosed with leprosy is akin to a death warrant. But that is far from the truth. Leprosy is completely curable, provided the patient take treatment at the right time and is consistent with his medicines. A multidrug approach is seen to be most effective against leprosy. Dr Nagaraju says, "Treatment for leprosy can go on for anywhere between six months to one year. Moreover, if screened early, 90 percent of the Mycobacterium leprae can be destroyed." As soon as the drugs start taking effect, the patient is no longer contagious.
3. Lepers with deformities are infectious
Physical deformities such as claw hands, mask face, corneal ulcers, swollen foot and perforated nose are common symptoms of leprosy. People think that lepers with deformities are sure to die and can infect anyone they come in contact with. Dr Nagaraju says, "Deformities don't say that the person is infectious. If the patient has taken the treatment for leprosy, he or she can no longer spread the disease, irrespective of whether the patient has deformities or not."
Jacob, J. T., & Franco-Paredes, C. (2008). The Stigmatization of Leprosy in India and Its Impact on Future Approaches to Elimination and Control. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 2(1), e113. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0000113
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