Leprosy is as old as, or in fact older than, the Bible. It is a disease that has plagued humans for more than 4000 years, and yet many remain unaware of some of the most common facts about leprosy. Find out about leprosy in this article.
A chronic disease that leaves the infected individual severely disfigured, leprosy is often feared. There are many rumors about leprosy that make it seem like a deadly – even fatal – disease. However, as with any disease, thorough knowledge will help you distinguish fact from figment of the mind. Here are some basic and interesting facts on leprosy.
- Around 150 new cases of leprosy are detected every year in the US alone, while 250,000 new cases of leprosy are detected annually around the world. Around 3 to 4 million people who have suffered from leprosy require ongoing care to treat the disabilities left behind by the disease.
- Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s Disease. This is in honor of Gerhard Armauer Hansen, the first physician to study the causative organism of leprosy.
- According to Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH (created by United States National Library of Medicine), leprosy is classified into three types, viz. tuberculoid, borderline and lepromatous; lepromatous leprosy is the most severe form, while borderline leprosy is the most common and has intermediate severity.
- Young children are more susceptible to leprosy than adults.
- Leprosy is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. The bacterium is pleomorphic (that is, the bacterial cell appears in more than a single structural/morphological form during its life cycle) and does not stain by Gram staining procedure (on account of the thick outer waxy coating around the cell). The bacterium stains by carbol fuchsin stain and is hence called an ‘acid fast’ bacterium.
- The disease has a long incubation period. Incubation period is the initial phase of a disease in which no symptoms are observed. The incubation period of leprosy varies greatly, from a few weeks to up to 30 years (as observed in ex-servicemen)! Average incubation period is around 3 to 5 years (which is still a long, long time).
- Leprosy is mildly contagious. The infected person dissipates the bacterium through sputum, and the bacterium spread through aerosols created after a sneeze or a cough. However, it is still regarded to be mildly contagious due to the fact that a single chance exposure is not enough to develop the disease – prolonged exposure is required.
- One of the most characteristic symptoms of leprosy (as well as its effect) are skin lesions. The lesions typically manifest on the extremities of the body initially – the digits, limbs, ears, nose etc. If left untreated, the lesions become progressive and can cause curling of skin. The cartilage is internalized, and structure of the concerned body part is altered. Disfigurement due to skin lesions is a cause of major physical and emotional agony to the infected person.
- Another painful effect of leprosy is muscle weakness and loss of the sense of touch. As the disease progresses, there is loss of sensitivity to an extent, so that a person becomes numb to touch. This numbness is characteristic in the lesions. The loss of sensitivity is due to severe nerve damage.
- A common rumor related to leprosy is that body parts “fall off” as leprosy progresses. This isn’t true. The loss of sensation, especially in body extremities makes one feel like a body part is missing, but the body part does not actually “fall off”!
- The common drugs used to treat leprosy include rifampin, clofazimine, dapsone, fluoroquinolones, minocycline and macrolides. Treatment immediately following the diagnosis of leprosy is crucial for several reasons. One of the reasons is that, even within 2 weeks of treatment, leprosy becomes non-contagious, as infectivity of the bacterium is lost. This in turn greatly reduces the quarantine period of leprosy patients. This can have great positive mental effects on the patient. This is essentially why research in leprosy focuses on finding new ways for early diagnosis of the disease.
- During the treatment phase, the body reacts to the dead/dying bacteria within. An effect of this reaction is intense pain and swelling in various parts of the body. Other characteristics of this reaction include fever, reddening of and pain in eyes, muscle aches, increased nerve damage especially in the eyes, hands and feet. Almost half the leprosy patients suffer from this reaction. However, appropriate treatment can avert the nerve damage cause by this reaction.
- In the old days, leprosy patients were quarantined and continued to live in isolation in ‘leper colonies’ for the rest of their lives. However, it has been long established that isolation post-treatment is not required.
One of the biggest challenges with respect to leprosy, is to eradicate the fear in the minds of people. Lepers suffer from huge social stigma throughout their life. Many people are not able to accept lepers back into their lives, and they become quarantined for life. It shouldn’t be so. Yes, the scars left behind by the skin lesions make accepting such people difficult. But one should remember these scars are equivalent to accident scars or wounds scars and nothing more. Within a few weeks of treatment itself leprosy becomes non-contagious. But people still continue to treat recovering lepers with a difference. We should strive to do away with such prejudices.