Written by Fiona Graham | Communications Officer, Lepra, Colchester, UK
If you think leprosy is a disease of the past, think again. Leprosy is still rife in the developing world and the poorest of communities overseas and is most prevalent in areas in which many live below the poverty line in communities where sanitation and healthcare knowledge is low.
Leprosy attacks the nerves and causes the affected areas to become numb. If left untreated, it can lead to life-changing disability, blindness, and in severe cases even amputation.
However, it is completely curable and the multi-drug therapy, currently funded by the Novartis Foundation, is provided free of charge. Unfortunately, not everybody seeks treatment because they are unable to recognise their symptoms or fear diagnosis due to the stigma surrounding the disease.
Throughout Europe, there are only a small number of people diagnosed and treated for leprosy each year; however, the annual global diagnosis figures stand between 200,000 and 250,000. Yet the World Health Organization (WHO) state that there are approximately 3 million people living with undiagnosed leprosy and a further 4 million are living with a disability caused by this disease.
The astonishingly high amount of people living with undiagnosed leprosy shows that providing a treatment alone is not enough if we want to one day eradicate the disease altogether. To beat the disease, it is vital to not only focus on treating leprosy but also on raising overall awareness in addition to aftercare and community prevention.
There is an increased need to push for early diagnosis to prevent the spread of leprosy. Health education is just one way to combat this through awareness events to provide people with the knowledge to recognise the symptoms of leprosy and to diminish stigma. The more people who can recognise the symptoms means more people are able to seek treatment sooner, preventing the disease from spreading and significantly reducing the number of disabilities caused.
The high numbers of people living with a disability caused by leprosy cannot be ignored. Disability management procedures such as reconstructive surgery, protective footwear, physiotherapy, and self-care practices can be life-changing. For many, effective aftercare will help people lead a life without disability, whether that is an adult returning to work or a child going back to school.
Improving the cleanliness and sanitation of communities will also help to prevent the spread of leprosy. This is through ensuring safe drinking water is accessible coupled with communicating the importance of maintaining good hygiene practices. These efforts work to raise people’s immune systems and help prevent them from contracting and spreading leprosy and other neglected diseases.
In addition to treating the disease, it is imperative to combine an approach of working with communities to raise awareness, promoting hygiene and cleanliness and managing disability. These efforts will enable more people to access the cure and receive the appropriate aftercare, which will drastically help to beat leprosy.