Leprosy- A Growing Endemic and a Social Stigma

Leprosy has been there for a very long time, since 2000 BC. So much so that you can find its mention in ancient books. The first-ever case of leprosy was recorded in India and it is believed that this is where it started to spread all over the world. It spread due to the rise in trade and through the effect of war. 

A Brief History

Due to the increased cases of leprosy in India, Mahatama Gandhi was majorly concerned about the disease victims. He fought for them and stood at the times when the community forced them to live in isolation and wait for death. Soon, the people who were affected by the disease were stigmatised in society because it was contagious. Even in civilised societies, people began to spread and believe in myths and misconceptions. But Gandhi Ji fought against this social fear in society and decided to help the patients affected by it.

Because of his contributions to society, the day he passed away- 30th January is now considered World Leprosy Day in India. 

Is Leprosy Curable?

The agent that causes Leprosy is a bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. The scientist who discovered this bacteria was a Norwegian, Dr. Gerhard Hansen and that is why this disease is also called Hansen’s disease. Despite the complete cure available at an early stage, more than 1,20,000 new leprosy cases were reported in 2020 throughout the world. And a majority of these cases are from India, which defines the burden of diseases in this country.

The bacteria can be transmitted from one person to another by coming in close contact with a person’s nose or mouth. Usually, the droplets from the mouth or nose of an infected person release bacteria in the air which can infect the person who inhales the same air. This is how the disease gradually spreads.

The infection can also spread due to blood transfusion, insect bites and breastfeeding. Leprosy cannot spread through skin contact.

How Does it Grow in the Body?

Once the bacteria is inside the body, it goes inactive and does not cause any harm immediately. It shows minimal changes in the body and takes a long while to harm the body. WHO states that this bacteria might take years to cause harm to the body. It might take 5-20 years for the bacteria to spread the infection in the body. Although, in some cases, young children and infants are also infected by leprosy even before the age of 5 years. Since the symptoms are not visible immediately, there is usually a delay in detection and therapy. 

Harm to the Body

Leprosy first affects the nerves, skin, mucus membrane and eyes. It causes inflammation and hence there is swelling and redness in different parts of the body. The bacteria harm the nerves and therefore, affects the ability to feel and sense things on the surface of the skin. The infected individuals can notice boils on the skin all over their body including the neck, chest, arms and legs. These boils can help to detect the seriousness of the infection. WHO categorises the infection according to the number of bacteria present in the boil in the cooler body parts such as elbows, earlobes and knees. Based on the number of bacteria, they have categorised the infection as paucibacillary and multibacillary.

The higher the number of lesions, the more severe the infection is considered to be. This is directly related to the effects and changes in the body. The disease causes inflammation and affects the normal functioning of the body. The infection may also lead to dryness in the eyes which might further lead to blindness. It also affects our body parts including kidneys, lungs, and heart. In some cases, it might also cause paralysis, making the body weak, and interrupting the regular functioning of the body. 

Beating the Spread

Leprosy cases are now declining in India and other parts of the world. It is important to stop the spread of the infection in order to eradicate it completely. Yes, it is contagious, but if we follow the effective steps of care, we can stop the spread. It will also help society to focus more on diagnosis and treatment rather than stigmatising the disease. 

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