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Leprosy

Symptoms and treatment of leprosy

History

The word leprosy derives from the ancient Greek words lepros, a scale, and lepein, to peel. Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by bacteria of which skin lesions are the main external symptom. Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is a disease of the peripheral nerves and the upper respiratory tract.

Leprosy has affected mankind for centuries and was well-recognized in ancient China, India and Egypt. The World Health Organization has estimated in the past that between two and three million people have been permanently disabled as a result of leprosy. Traditionally, quarantine or segregation of patients was commonplace however, unnecessary, and a few leper colonies still remain in the world today in countries such as Japan, Egypt, India and Vietnam.

There is an age-old stigma attached to the advanced form of leprosy, which still exists in many areas and still remains a major hurdle for people in reporting incidences and receiving early treatment.

Symptoms

The clinical symptoms of leprosy vary but essentially affect the skin, nerves and mucous membranes. Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not cause rotting of the flesh. Rather, the result of the insensitivity in the limbs was the reason why unfelt wounds or lesions, however minor, led to undetected deterioration of the tissue, with the lack of pain not triggering an immediate response as it would in a fully functioning body.

Although there is uncertainty about how Hansen's disease is transmitted, most professionals believe that it is usually spread from person to person in respiratory droplets. The highest risk groups are those who live in endemic areas with poor sanitation and insufficient diet, and those who have other diseases (such as HIV) that compromise immune function. Less than 10 percent of the world's population is actually capable of acquiring the disease, with men twice as likely to contract leprosy as women.

Diagnosis

The incubation period for the bacteria which causes leprosy is anything between 2 and 10 years therefore, diagnosis can be extremely difficult.

Treatment

Effective treatment of leprosy first appeared in the late 1930s with the introduction of a drug known as dapsone and its derivatives. However, resistance gradually evolved and became more widespread until the introduction of multidrug therapy in the early 1980s before leprosy could be diagnosed and treated with success.

A single dose of a drug called rifampicin is able to reduce the rate of leprosy and the BCG vaccine is able to offer an amount of protection against leprosy as well as against tuberculosis.

The standard duration of treatment around 10 years ago was 24 months, but the World Health Organization has stipulated that this could safely be shortened to 12 months without compromising the efficacy of the treatment.

Lasting Effects

As a result of the obstacles faced in the elimination of the disease through the stigma attached to leprosy, patients may be forced to hide their condition and avoid seeking the treatment they so desperately need. The ignorance surrounding leprosy can lead people to falsely believe that the disease is highly contagious and incurable therefore, many people have been left permanently disabled and disfigured by a disease that is curable.

Due to the advances in the application of multidrug therapy, nowadays the relapse rates for leprosy remain low and there is no known resistance to the combined drugs.

By Kellen Baxter

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