Fighting Leprosy and its Stigma

A person affected by leprosy often experiences a loss of self-esteem and dignity. He feels fear, shame, hopelessness and guilt. The disease often affects those who cannot afford even the basic necessities like food, water and shelter.

About Leprosy
It is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs. The disease that has been prevalent since ancient times is often surrounded by negative stigmas and tales of leprosy patients being shunned as outcasts. The oldest civilizations of China, Egypt and India feared that leprosy was an incurable, mutilating and contagious.
However Leprosy is actually not that contagious. One can catch it only if he comes into close and repeated contact with nose and mouth droplets from someone with untreated leprosy. The younger ones are more likely to be affected by leprosy than adults.

What causes Leprosy?
Leprosy is caused by the bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It is also known as Hansen’s disease, named after the scientist who discovered M. Leprae in 1873.

Symptoms
Leprosy affects the skin and nerves outside the brain and eventually the spinal cord, called the peripheral nerves. It also affects the eyes and the thin tissue lining inside of the nose.
The person suffering from leprosy eventually starts having disfiguring pale-coloured skin sores, lumps, or bumps. These do not go away even after several weeks or months.
It usually takes about 3 to 5 years for the symptoms to appear after a person even comes into contact with the leprosy-causing bacteria. The symptoms are not visible in some cases event until 20 years. The time between when a person is contacted with the bacteria and the appearance of symptoms is called the incubation period. Leprosy’s long incubation period makes it very difficult for doctors to determine the facts of when and where a person could have got infected with the bacteria.

Types of Leprosy
Leprosy is defined by the number and type of skin sores one has. Specific symptoms and treatment depend on the type of leprosy. There are 2 types of Leprosy:
Tuberculoid, a mild, less severe form of leprosy and Lepromatous a severe one. People suffering from Tuberculoid have a few patches of flat, pale-coloured skin. This leprosy is less contagious than other forms.
Lepromatous on the other hand has widespread skin bumps and rashes (multibacillary leprosy), numbness and muscle weakness. The nose, kidneys, and male reproductive organs may also be affected. This is more contagious.

Myth
1. Unlike the myth that exists, Leprosy can be cured. In the last two decades, 16 million people with leprosy have been cured. The World Health Organization provides free treatment to all people affected with leprosy.
The treatment depends on the type of leprosy that one has. The person suffering is given antibiotics to treat the infection. Leprosy cannot be ignored and left unattended. Without treatment it can permanently damage the skin, nerves, arms, legs, feet, and eyes.
2. Some folklore also believed that leprosy caused the body parts to fall off.
People affected with Leprosy are often outcast from the society giving them a low self-esteem. To educate the public and create an awareness about the disease, World Leprosy Day is observed internationally on January 30 or its nearest Sunday.

Some facts – Situation in India
India declared elimination of leprosy as a Public health problem in December 2005 indicating that there was less than 1 per 10,000 cases of treatment nationally.
According to reports the South-East Asian region (SEAR) has highest prevalence of 116396 (0.63) cases and as many as 8.38 per 1,00,000 new cases detected. India alone accounted for 58.85 per cent of the global leprosy burden.
It is the stigma that is worse than the disease itself. Let’s join hands to fight this disease and show we care.

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