You’ve undoubtedly heard about the ancient disease that divided communities and forced its victims into isolation. But leprosy has been long gone from modern civilizations, right? Actually… no. Unfortunately, millions of people are still enduring the pains, fears, and stigmas of this unforgiving infection. Here’s what you should know about leprosy and what you can do to help fight it.
- Ancient: Leprosy has been around for as long as history shows. The earliest possible recorded case was found in an Egyptian Papyrus document from 1550 B.C.
- Different Names: Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease due to a Norwegian scientist in 1873 named Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, who discovered that the cause of leprosy is a bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.
- Modern Cases: There are an estimated 2-3 million people worldwide that are living with leprosy or leprosy-related disabilities.
- Majority: 60% of the world’s leprosy cases are found in India, with over 1,000 leprosy colonies. Other countries with high numbers of leprosy patients are Brazil, Indonesia, and parts of Africa.
- Vulnerable: Though leprosy can develop at any age, it is most common in people aged 5-15 or over 30. There are more men diagnosed than women, though it is unknown if that is due to genetics, environment, or another explanation.
- Slow: Leprosy can be in the body for up to 20 years before any symptoms show, though it typically takes about 5 years.
- Effects: Some symptoms of leprosy can be major peripheral nerve damage and muscle weakness, damage to the skin, blindness, nose disfigurement, paralysis, and crippling of hands feet along with other possible symptoms as well.
- Long Exposure: Leprosy is believed to be spread through breathing in droplets from coughs and sneezes of an untreated leprosy patient. It requires close contact with someone with untreated leprosy for a long period of time. Merely sitting near someone with leprosy, hugging them, or shaking their hand will not transmit the disease.
- Immuned: Over 95% of people throughout the world have a natural immunity to leprosy, so it is very unlikely to get the disease unless you live in a country where the disease is prominent.
- Treatment: Fortunately, there is a combination of antibiotic drugs (known as multi-drug therapy) that can cure leprosy. After two days of antibiotic treatments, a leprosy patient is no longer contagious, though treatment typically lasts one to two years. If leprosy is detected early on, it will usually prevent a person from having common side effects and disabilities.
- Access: The World Health Organization currently provides free treatment through multi-drug therapy to leprosy patients in countries where leprosy is common. Over 16 million patients have been treated in the past 20 years.
- Damage: There is no way to reverse the effects of permanent nerve damage and disfigurations caused by leprosy, so early detection is very important.
- Medical Discrimination: Even though there is now a cure, many people still have misunderstandings about leprosy, and many of those suffering from leprosy are still isolated and discriminated against. They are considered unclean, and even many doctors refuse to treat them.
- World Leprosy Day: Every year on the last Sunday of January, World Leprosy Day is observed. This began in 1954 when Raoul Follereau, a French philanthropist, wanted to raise awareness about leprosy and teach people that it is easily curable.
- Humans: Other than humans, armadillos are the only animal known to be able to get leprosy.
So what can you do to help leprosy patients? Volunteer, donate, sponsor a child, attend an event, start a campaign, post about it on social media and tell your friends and family what you’ve learned (see https://risingstaroutreach.org/get-involved/ for information on how to get involved with each of these things). The more we share facts about leprosy and eliminate the long-believed stigmas, the more leprosy patients will be accepted in their own communities and can live fuller, happier lives.
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Brittany Hunter is a marketing specialist passionate about non-profit work. She has volunteered in Portugal, Costa Rica, and throughout the United States. She and her husband, Josh, currently reside in Sandy, Utah, and in their spare time can be found hiking, traveling, or spending time with family.