What is Leprosy?
Leprosy is caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The organism multiplies slowly, resulting in an incubation period of around two to five years. It can take up to 20 years before the first symptoms appear. Leprosy attacks the skin and nerves of infected individuals. The most common first signs of leprosy are hypopigmented patches with numbness. These patches in the skin are painless, and thus frequently go unnoticed or are thought to be harmless. If allowed to progress untreated, the disease eventually causes damage to the nerves.
Affected persons suffer from numbness in the extremities of the body, in particular the hands and feet. One effect of this loss of sensation is that injuries go undetected or not thought to be serious. The consequence of this is open wounds and infections. As the disease progresses, damage to nerves results in blindness as well as visible dis-figurations of the toes and fingers.
Leprosy is transmitted via droplet infection through the mouth and nose following longer periods of close contact with an infected person. In many countries, leprosy sufferers are stigmatised and shunned from normal society, and even their own families, for fear of contagion. In many places, laws specifically aimed at preventing people with leprosy from taking part in everyday life are still in force.
How is Leprosy cured?
Leprosy can be cured with a combination therapy of different antibiotics (multidrug therapy). According to the World Health Organization, more than 16 million people have received this form of treatment since the 1980s. However, the treatment is often lengthy as well as associated with many side effects, and is effective only if consumed completely according to instruction. The nerve damage caused by leprosy cannot be reversed. At best, it is possible to surgically restore deformities of the hands and feet.