World Leprosy Day is observed internationally on the last Sunday of January every year to raise awareness about leprosy and let people know that it is easily curable today. Unfortunately, many people across the world continue to suffer from this disease due to lack of access to basic medical care and lingering stigma about the illness.
Leprosy affects the nervous system, resulting in loss of sensation in the exposed parts of the body like the hands, feet and face. This disease was renamed Hansen’s disease after the scientist Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen who discovered in 1873 that a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae causes this disease. It can take many years to develop symptoms of leprosy following infection.
Challenges of leprosy disease
Leprosy mainly affects people in poor countries who live in crowded conditions and do not have easy access to health care due to long distances to clinics and high cost of going to the doctor. In addition, they may not seek help when symptoms first appear, due the continued stigma against people with leprosy. These factors only cause delay in diagnosis and development of disabilities.
Many people with leprosy are unable to work due to disability caused by the disease or face stigma even if they want to work. Girls and women affected by leprosy bear the added burden of gender discrimination, which may further delay detection of the disease. The good news is leprosy is fully curable. Proper awareness about the disease and improved access to basic health services are keys to successful elimination of stigma and disability associated with the illness.
On this World leprosy day, we can put a stop to discrimination and stigma against people with Hansen’s disease by educating ourselves about it and separating the facts from the myths. There are a number of common misconceptions about Hansen’s disease which continue to spread ignorance and fuel stigma and discrimination. Here are some common myths about the disease which are far from true.
- Leprosy is very contagious
Leprosy is hard to catch, and in fact, 95% of adults cannot catch it because their immune system is able to fight off the bacteria that causes it. And no, you do not get leprosy just by sitting next to a person who has the disease. Leprosy is not spread by casual contact such as shaking hands, sitting next to or talking to someone who has the disease. Only very close and repeated contact with infected person can give you this disease.
- Leprosy causes the fingers and toes to fall off
What actually happens is that the bacteria that causes leprosy attacks the nerves of the fingers and toes and causes them to become numb. So, if there are burns and cuts on those numb parts, they may go unnoticed. This, in turn, may lead to infection and permanent damage, and eventually disfigurement of the affected part. This happens in advanced stages when the disease has been left untreated.
- People with leprosy should live in isolation
Of course not. But yes, they must receive proper treatment and while we are at it, antibiotics can provide lasting cure to this condition. Any person with leprosy who is being treated with antibiotics can live a completely normal life among family and friends.
- Leprosy causes death
For the record, leprosy has no direct causality with anyone's death. As happens with any other disease, it can be cured completely if proper and timely treatment is given. Leprosy can be cured easily with antibiotic treatment.
- People with leprosy are contagious until treatment is complete
A person is infectious only in the initial stages. After a few days of antibiotic treatment, they are not contagious any more. However, the full course of the treatment as prescribed must be completed (which usually takes up to 2 years) to make sure that the infection does not come back.
- Leprosy is the result of a sin or curse
While it is understandable that the disease causes severe psychological pain or trauma in many of the affected, there is no reason to believe that it is due to their behaviour, forget 'sin' or 'curse'. Leprosy is a type of bacterial disease which is caused by the slow-growing bacterium Mycobacterium leprae.
Persisting stigma surrounding this disease takes a serious toll on the physical, psychological, social, and economic well-being of those afflicted by leprosy. This contributes to their deteriorating health. Whereas, there is urgent need to eliminate the myths and unnecessary stigma and bring the affected people closer to treatment and cure.
Instead of being shunned, discriminated against and denied basic human rights, people with leprosy can and should live a better life and our goal should be to secure the same. On world leprosy day 2021, it is hoped that this goal will be achieved, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19 which brought us face-to-face with a far more contagious disease, a global pandemic.