Leprosy in Our Time – Medical and Social Challenges

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases known to humankind. Once dreaded as contagious, disfiguring and without cure, today it is easily treated with antibiotics.

Yet for many people diagnosed with the disease, for those who have been cured, and even family members, the outdated image of leprosy that persists in the public mind means they continue to face rejection and social exclusion.

Photo of a family living in India’s Leprosy colonies

What is leprosy?

Leprosy is a chronic bacterial disease that mainly affects the skin and nerves. Left untreated, it can cause impairment and result in permanent disability.

Since the beginning of recorded history, there have been numerous references to leprosy. Accounts can be found in the Bible, documents from ancient China and Indian classics from the 6th century B.C.

Over the centuries, the appearance of sufferers and fear of contagion led to the stigmatization of those affected. Society’s response was to cast people with leprosy from its midst. Many people who came down with the disease were banished to islands or other remote locations, where they were forced to live out their days stripped of their freedoms and branded as “lepers”.

In the 1980s, an effective cure for leprosy was developed and is now available free of charge to all who need it. Nevertheless, persons affected by the disease and their loved ones continue to be marginalized by mainstream society.

“Leprosy is curable,” “Treatment is free,” and “Social discrimination has no place” are the three fundamental messages advocated by Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for the Elimination of Leprosy.

The nature of the disease

The bacillus that causes leprosy was identified in 1873 by a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen. Today, leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease.

Mycobacterium leprae, or M. leprae, multiplies very slowly and has an incubation period of about five years. However, symptoms can take as long as 20 years to develop. The first tell-tale signs of the disease are patches that appear on the skin, accompanied by sensory loss in the affected areas.

While the route of transmission has yet to be conclusively demonstrated, leprosy is thought to be passed on via droplets from the nose and mouth during close and frequent contact with untreated, infectious individuals. Nonetheless, leprosy is not highly infectious and over 99% of people have a natural immunity or resistance to leprosy. This is why it is sometimes called the least infectious of infectious diseases.