~photo by David Van Der Walde of Aust & Hachmann (Canada) Ltd; long time supporter of the C.A.L.A. villages

“Although treatment stops leprosy from spreading, patients need care for the rest of their lives. After losing feeling in affected limbs, people with leprosy often end up with severe wounds on their hands and feet. A woman who is cooking will just pick up the pot from the fire and burn her hands without noticing. A man who is walking home can step on sticks and rocks and hurt his feet.” ~La Fondation Raoul-Follereau

“In addition to medicine to treat the disease, leprosy patients need bandages to dress their wounds. But these basic items are often lacking in health centres. “We went into the villages to show health workers how to dress wounds,” said Odile Valat, a French nurse who volunteers for three months a year in the region. “We told them to cut one piece of gauze into eight parts, but they didn’t even have one gauze. So then we started with boiling pieces of cloth”.” ~IRIN news


Meet volunteer nurse Odile Valat

While the patients in the two remaining leprosy villages in Antalaha enjoy free health care and schooling for their children and grandchildren – and earn a living by working in the village plant nurseries, all supported by local aid workers – the newer patients often struggle with the consequences of their disease without any assistance. Families may lack the means to support a non-productive member of the household and patients with families of their own, cannot support them.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease (HD), is a chronic infection caused by the bacterium mycobacterium leprae and mycobacterium lepromatosis. Initially infections are without symptoms and typically remain this way for 5 years and possibly as long as 20 years. Symptoms that develop include granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes. This may result in a lack of ability to feel pain and thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries. Weakness and poor eyesight may also be present.

Leprosy has affected humanity for thousands of years. The disease takes its name from the Latin word Lepra, which means “scaly”, while the term “Hansen’s disease” is named after the physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen.

World Leprosy Day was started in 1954 to draw awareness to those affected by leprosy.

World Health Organization (WHO) Fact sheet N°101
Updated January 2014

Key facts

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by a slow multiplying bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae.
M. leprae multiplies slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about 5 years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.
The disease mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and also the eyes.
Leprosy is curable.
Although not highly infectious, it is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.
Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain key in eliminating the disease as a public health concern
Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Official figures from 115 countries show the global registered prevalence of leprosy at 189 018 at the end of 2012 and during the same year, 232 857 new cases were reported.
Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, an acid-fast, rod-shaped bacillus. The disease mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and also the eyes.

Leprosy is curable and treatment provided in the early stages averts disability.

Multidrug therapy (MDT) treatment has been made available by WHO free of charge to all patients worldwide since 1995, and provides a simple yet highly effective cure for all types of leprosy.

Elimination of leprosy globally was achieved in the year 2000 (i.e. a prevalence rate of leprosy less than 1 case per 10 000 persons at global level). Close to 16 million leprosy patients have been cured with MDT over the past 20 years.

Leprosy today
Leprosy control has improved significantly due to national and subnational campaigns in most endemic countries. Integration of primary leprosy services into existing general health services has made diagnosis and treatment of the disease easy.

Detection of all cases in a community and completion of prescribed treatment using MDT are the basic tenets of the Enhanced Global Strategy for Further Reducing Disease Burden Due to Leprosy (plan period: 2011 – 2015).

The strategy emphasizes the need to sustain expertise and increase the number of skilled leprosy staff, improve the participation of affected persons in leprosy services and reduce visible deformities otherwise called Grade 2 disabilities (G2D cases) as well as stigma associated with the disease.

National leprosy programmes for 2011 – 2015 now focus more on underserved populations and inaccessible areas to improve access and coverage. Since control strategies are limited, national programmes actively improve case holding, contact tracing, monitoring, referrals and record management.

According to official reports received from 115 countries, the global registered prevalence of leprosy at the end of 2012 was 189 018 cases. The number of new cases reported globally in 2012 was 232 857 compared with 226 626 in 2011.

The global statistics show that 220 810 (95%) of new leprosy cases were reported from 16 countries and only 5% of new cases are from the rest of the world.

Pockets of high endemicity still remain in some areas of many countries but a few are mentioned as reference: Angola, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Democatic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and the United Republic of Tanzania.

Brief history – disease and treatment
Leprosy was recognized in the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt and India. The first known written mention of leprosy is dated 600 BC. Throughout history, people afflicted have often been ostracized by their communities and families.

Although leprosy was treated differently in the past, the first breakthrough occurred in the 1940s with the development of the drug dapsone, which arrested the disease. But the duration of the treatment was many years, even a lifetime, making it difficult for patients to follow. In the 1960s, M. leprae started to develop resistance to dapsone, the world’s only known anti-leprosy drug at that time. In the early 1960s, rifampicin and clofazimine, the other two components of recommended multidrug therapy (MDT), were discovered.

In 1981, a WHO Study Group recommended MDT. MDT consists of 3 drugs: dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine and this drug combination kills the pathogen and cures the patient.

Since 1995, WHO provides free MDT for all patients in the world, initially through the drug fund provided by the Nippon Foundation and since 2000, through the MDT donation provided by Novartis and the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development.

Elimination of leprosy as a public health problem
In 1991 WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly (WHA) passed a resolution to eliminate leprosy by the year 2000. Elimination of leprosy is defined as a prevalence rate of less than 1 case per 10 000 persons. The target was achieved on time and the widespread use of MDT reduced the disease burden dramatically.

Over the past 20 years, more than 14 million leprosy patients have been cured, about 4 million since 2000.
The prevalence rate of the disease has dropped by 90% – from 21.1 per 10 000 inhabitants to less than 1 per 10 000 inhabitants in 2000.
Dramatic decrease in the global disease burden: from 5.2 million in 1985 to 805 000 in 1995 to 753 000 at the end of 1999 to 189 018 cases at the end of 2012.
Leprosy has been eliminated from 119 countries out of 122 countries where the disease was considered as a public health problem in 1985.
So far, there has been no resistance to antileprosy treatment when used as MDT.
Efforts currently focus on eliminating leprosy at a national level in the remaining endemic countries and at a sub-national level from the others.
Actions and resources required
In order to reach all patients, leprosy treatment needs to be fully integrated into general health services. Moreover, political commitment needs to be sustained in countries where leprosy remains a public health problem. Partners in leprosy elimination also need to continue to ensure that human and financial resources are available.

The age-old stigma associated with the disease remains an obstacle to self-reporting and early treatment. The image of leprosy has to be changed at the global, national and local levels. A new environment, in which patients will not hesitate to come forward for diagnosis and treatment at any health facility, must be created.

WHO response

The WHO Strategy for leprosy elimination contains the following:

ensuring accessible and uninterrupted MDT services available to all patients through flexible and patient-friendly drug delivery systems;
ensuring the sustainability of MDT services by integrating leprosy services into the general health services and building the ability of general health workers to treat leprosy;
encouraging self-reporting and early treatment by promoting community awareness and changing the image of leprosy;
monitoring the performance of MDT services, the quality of patients’ care and the progress being made towards elimination through national disease surveillance systems.
Sustained and committed efforts by the national programmes along with the continued support from national and international partners have led to a decline in the global burden of leprosy. Increased empowerment of people affected by the disease, together with their greater involvement in services and community, will bring us closer to a world without leprosy.

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