Fight The Bacteria, Kill The Stigma


With a disfigured face, fingers and toes they sit on the corner of streets, begging for alms. That’s the image we draw when we hear the word ‘Leprosy’. But on World Leprosy Day, there is a need to reiterate the fact that those affected with Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, need not necessarily reach that stage. It is possible, and they have every right to live a happy, healthy life amongst their families while taking treatment for Leprosy because during this stage Leprosy is not contagious.

But the key is early diagnosis and treatment. With Leprosy the main problem is stigma. More than anything else, it is the fear of stigma that affects the patient so much that they live in a denial for a long while and that delays treatment. The earlier you start treatment, the better it is. It is absolutely imperative to bear in mind that Leprosy is a curable disease and that treatment with antibiotics help in tackling the bacteria that causes this disease.

Leprosy was renamed Hansen’s disease after Norwegian scientist Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, who in 1873 discovered the slow-growing bacterium now known as ‘Mycobacterium leprae’ as the cause of the illness. Contrary to popular belief, Hansen’s disease is difficult to catch, and it can take many years to develop symptoms of the disease following an infection.

Early symptoms of the disease are light patches on the skin, which usually don’t have any sensation. Since the symptoms are so mild and painless, there are high chances of the disease going unnoticed initially. Doctors reiterate on the need to be watchful and take patients to clinics at the onset of any likely symptom. Hansen’s disease mainly affects people in resource-poor countries who live in crowded conditions and have difficulty accessing health care due to long distances to clinics treating Hansen’s disease, and high cost of going to the doctor. Because of this, despite the WHO’s program to provide treatment for free, many of those affected don’t complete it or don’t receive it at all. But for cure, it is essential that one completes the dose of antibiotic treatment, which might take up to two years.

The primary challenge in this disease is tackling the myths. People believe it is highly contagious, but the fact is that while it does spread like common cold it is extremely difficult to catch this disease and 95 percent of adults cannot catch it because their immune system can fight off the bacteria that causes this disease. Secondly Leprosy is not a curse, it is caused due to a slow growing bacterium. Leprosy does not cause fingers or toes to fall off. The fact is that since the bacterium affects the nerves of fingers and toes and make them numb, so burns and cuts in these areas may get unnoticed, as a result causing an infection or permanent damage. But this happens only in advanced stages of the disease and if it’s left untreated. So know your facts and spread the word that Leprosy is a totally curable disease.

What the numbers say about the disease?

  • The number of new cases reported globally to World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015 was more than 200,000.
  • Close to 19,000 children were diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 2015, more than 50 a day.
  • An estimated 2 to 3 million people are living with Hansen’s disease-related disabilities globally.
  • In 2015, the countries with the highest number of new diagnoses were India, Brazil, and Indonesia, followed by some of the nations in Africa.
  • Two-thirds of all new cases of Hansen’s disease are diagnosed in India, which remains home to a third of the world’s poor.

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