“Beat Leprosy, End Stigma and advocate for Mental Wellbeing” is the theme for this year’s World Leprosy day which is observed annually on the last Sunday of January.
This day is observed to bring global awareness to the plight of those affected by this ancient disease and to spread more information on its prevention, treatment and cure.
World Leprosy Day commemorates the death date of Mahatma Gandhi who had compassion for people afflicted with leprosy. Campaigns and rallies around the world help to raise awareness of the medical and social implications of leprosy as people with this disease are often discriminated against.
Leprosy is an infectious disease that occurs in the skin, superficial nerves, and may also occur in the nose, eyes, throat and testicles. It’s symptoms include muscle weakness, skin ulcers and lesions. The disease progresses rather slowly in the cells and symptoms can take up to 5 years to be detected, making it difficult for medical experts to make a diagnosis. A diagnosis is made through a skin biopsy of the affected area. Leprosy is curable and treatment in the early stages can prevent disability.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the highest leprosy cases to date occur in India, Brazil and Indonesia. Every continent has had an outbreak in leprosy as it is one of the oldest diseases in recorded history. The disease, now known as Hansen’s disease, is believed to have developed in Africa or Asia and spread its way to Europe. Despite medical efforts to completely eradicate the disease, leprosy cases do remain considerably low.
The African Region has the second largest prevalence of leprosy cases, and has reported an uneven distribution of 480 000 diagnosed cases with numbers fluctuating each year in most regions. There are 37 000 new cases reported each year.
Regions such as Namibia have seen a slight increase in reported cases between 2017 – 2020 with the current number of confirmed leprosy cases being 27 in 2021. In 2019, Namibia had 22 confirmed cases, which was an increase from the 17 reported in 2018, and the 11 reported in 2017. Only two cases involved children under the age of 15 years from cases recorded between 2017 – 2020.
The Leprosy Mission In South Africa estimated that around 3 000 people who no longer suffer from the active disease still suffer the long term effects of disability and require medical and social support.
The stigma associated with this disease is rooted in biblical times, and is one of the main reasons patients often delay seeking proper care and treatment. If left untreated, leprosy can cause permanent nerve damage in the limbs, disability in the hands and feet, blindness and kidney failure. It can be successfully treated with antibiotics for a period of 6 to 12 months.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
Q: Is there a leprosy vaccine?
A: No. There is no leprosy vaccine that provides full protection against the disease.
Q: How do you catch leprosy?
A: Leprosy is transmitted primarily through coughing and sneezing. In most cases, it is spread through long term contact with a person who has the disease but has not been treated.
Q: Is leprosy very contagious?
A: Most people will never develop the disease even if they are exposed to the bacteria.
Q: Do fingers and toes fall off when someone gets leprosy?
A: No. The bacteria attack the nerve endings and destroy the body’s ability to feel pain and injury. Without feeling pain, people injure themselves and the injuries can become infected, resulting in tissue loss.