Today is World Leprosy Day. Chances are high this isn’t a day you’ve written into your calendar, but we’re going to share why we think it should be and why we know the people affected by this curable disease should be. First, it is important to know that having questions like, “Wait. Leprosy still exists?” and “If it is curable, why are people still affected by it?” are common responses. Before we answer more of your questions, it is essential to start by introducing the star role stigma has in making it difficult to eradicate leprosy.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is an ancient disease that has been feared and misunderstood for thousands of years. It was a common belief that people infected with the disease were unclean, untrustworthy, and morally corrupt. It was considered a punishment from God for sin, a deserved consequence of poor choices.
In addition to believing an infected person was evil, most people also thought leprosy was highly contagious. A person suspected of having the disease was immediately cast out of their home and community – forced to live the rest of their days in a leprosy colony. For a person living with leprosy in India, they were considered the lowliest of all creatures and labeled “untouchable.”
Even though science has proven that leprosy is not a curse but rather a bacterial infection, stigma (misinformed and fed by the myths above) continues to be a severe problem in many developing countries, especially those with large numbers of people living in impoverished and marginalized communities. After identifying what they suspect are the early signs of leprosy, someone might choose to live with the disease and its long-term effects rather than seek medical care. If they find a doctor who will even treat them, a confirmed case of leprosy could result in losing their job, family, and home.
Imagine having your life shattered because of a treatable medical diagnosis.
So reader, are you asking, “What can I do to help?” Great question! That is our favorite question, actually.
A great place to start is by learning and sharing the facts.
WHAT IS LEPROSY?
It is “an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa).”
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF MODERN DAY LEPROSY?
The disease can cause skin symptoms such as:
- A large, discolored lesion on the chest of a person with Hansen’s disease.
- Discolored patches of skin, usually flat, that may be numb and look faded (lighter than the skin around it)
- Growths (nodules) on the skin
- Thick, stiff or dry skin
- Painless ulcers on the soles of feet
- Painless swelling or lumps on the face or earlobes
- Loss of eyebrows or eyelashes
Symptoms caused by damage to the nerves are:
- Numbness of affected areas of the skin
- Muscle weakness or paralysis (especially in the hands and feet)
- Enlarged nerves (especially those around the elbow and knee and in the sides of the neck)
- Eye problems that may lead to blindness (when facial nerves are affected)
Symptoms caused by the disease in the mucous membranes are:
- A stuffy nose
IT IS CURABLE?
Yes! It can be cured with a treatment known as multi-drug therapy (MDT). “A person is not contagious after a few days of starting the treatment with antibiotics. However, the treatment must be finished as prescribed (which may take up to 2 years) to make sure the infection doesn’t come back” (CDC). These treatments are provided free of charge to all endemic countries by the World Health Organization.
If the treatment begins before deformities develop, the patient will be completely cured without leaving any visible evidence on the body.
HOW CONTAGIOUS IS LEPROSY?
Overall, the risk of getting Hansen’s disease for adults worldwide is very low. That’s because more than 95% of all people have a natural immunity to the disease. In addition, prolonged and close contact with someone with untreated leprosy over many months is needed to catch the disease.
WHAT IS THE PROPER TERM FOR SOMEONE WHO HAS LEPROSY?
The word “leper” is actually quite offensive. It has a negative connotation that suggests the person should be avoided at all costs. As a marginalized group, people affected by leprosy are fighting for their humanity, and labels that further ostracize them are counterproductive. “Person affected by leprosy” or “leprosy-affected person” are more respectful.
If you’re asking yourself, “Is there something I can do today that will directly impact people affected by leprosy?”, we’re thrilled you feel compelled to make a difference.
Consider making a donation to support our mission of empowering individuals and families to rise above the stigma associated with leprosy and to live healthy, productive lives through quality education, medical care, and community development.
Our programs empower leprosy-affected individuals to develop sustainability in their colonies, and eliminate the stigma of leprosy in the communities that surround them.
The results we’re seeing are powerful and encouraging. There’s much more to do. Through people like you, these programs offer lasting solutions to an ancient problem. World Leprosy Day is the last Sunday of January, but every day of the year is a perfect day to make an impact that will last generations.