World Leprosy Day takes place on the last Sunday in January, this year it will be on the 29th. The day aims to raise awareness of a disease that many people believe to be extinct, when in fact around 210,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The last Sunday in January was chosen by French humanitarian Raoul Follereau in 1953, as the third Sunday from Epiphany from the Catholic calendar. The Catholic Church then reads the story of the Gospel where Jesus meets and heals a person with leprosy.

Leprosy also known as Hansen’s disease is named after Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841 – 1912), a Norwegian Physician who in 1873 indentified the bacterium Mycobacterium as the causative agent of leprosy.

In 1995, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that between 2 to 3 million people were permanently disabled by the disease. The disease remains common in poorer parts of the world.

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the peripheral nerves, skin, upper respiratory tract, eyes and the nasal mucosa. The disease is caused by bacillus (rod-shaped) bacterium known as mycobacterium leprae.

Leprosy is believed to be spread like a common cold as an airborne disease but is much less contagious than the cold or influenza. One has to live for some years in an endemic area, where new cases of leprosy are continually being detected to have a risk of catching it.

Leprosy is from a Greek word “lepi” meaning scales of a fish. Skin lesions are the principal external sign of the disease on a person. Pale patches on the skin are usually the first sign of the disease. These are painless and do not itch so are usually ignored by the patients. As a result nerve damage and other complications occur as the disease progresses. Left untreated, leprosy will cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Leprosy does not directly cause body parts to fall off on their own accord. Instead, they become disfigured or auto-amputed as a result of the progression of the disease. In many communities, this leads to stigma towards the afflicted and their families, causing them to be shunned and even excluded from everyday life or expelled from the communities.

Fortunately, in the modern world we live in today, antibiotics can quickly kill the bacteria (germs) that cause leprosy, so the disease can be completely cured with a few months of treatment. If treatment is started at an early stage, many patients may not suffer terrible complications as it used to be in the olden days.



Myths and Misconceptions

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases in the world as it is clearly referenced in the bible and the first case was reported in the 6th Century in India, China and Egypt. Despite this however, the disease is highly misunderstood and myths and misconceptions abound. One of the myths especially in the olden days was that the disease was sexually transmitted and as such was as a result of immoral behavior.
However, some scholars believe that during these medieval times, the leprosy symptoms could have been mistaken with those of syphilis which was first described in 1530. At that time, Leprosy was being treated with mercury just as syphilis was. The other myth is that leprosy can be contracted through merely touching an infected person. This too is not true as WHO indicate that transmission of the disease is through air.

The bacterium that causes Leprosy is also less contagious than that of influenza or the common cold. One has to live for some years in an endemic area, where new cases of the disease are continually being detected, to run the risk of catching it. Additionally, WHO estimates that 95% of people are naturally immune to the disease and sufferers are no longer infectious after as little as two weeks of treatment.

One of the misconceptions of the disease is that it is not curable. The truth is that leprosy can easily be cured if treatment is started early. Antibiotics can quickly kill the bacteria (germs) that cause leprosy so that the disease can be completely cured with a few months of treatment. In the last 20 years, over 15 million people have completely been cured of leprosy through out the world.

The other misconception is that leprosy causes limbs to fall off. The truth here is that leprosy affects the nerves in the hand and feet eventually causing them to become anesthetized and lose any sense of feeling. Since all sensation to the limbs is lost, the patients do not feel any pain and are at great risk of getting injured either as a result of burns or cuts. Fingers and toes can be lost due to such injuries. In many communities, this leads to stigma towards those affected and their families, causing them to be shunned and even excluded from everyday life. Disfigurement caused by the disease has resulted in forced quarantine and segregation of patients even in countries where adequate treatment is available. Many lepers’ colonies still exist in different countries of the world including Nigeria.



Another misconception is that cockroaches cause leprosy. Some armadillos (especially in the south part of the US) are naturally infected with leprosy, and armadillos are the only other animal besides humans to host the leprosy bacillus, some species of cockroaches have also been known to harbor the bacillus but they are not known to transmit the infection. Leprosy is an airborne infection and the disease is transmitted from an infected human in poor sanitary conditions to another and not from animals or insects to humans.


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