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What is Leprosy?

There has been much misinformation lately over the present status of leprosy in the world. Many believe that leprosy is no longer in existence and the statistics given even by the World Health Organization have been misleading. With the introduction of the multi-drug therapy many cases of leprosy have been arrested but there are still 800,000 new cases reported every year. The multi-drug therapy does nothing to correct the deformities and crippling effects of the disease.

Those who predicted that leprosy would no longer be a major health problem by the year 2000 have revised their predictions. Leprosy is found everywhere including the United States, but the most cases are found in India, Brazil, and countries in Africa. People are startled to learn that our servicemen and women who serve all over the world have also contracted leprosy and other tropical diseases.

Dr. Wayne Meyers and Dr. Douglas Walsh, members of our Board, answered the following questions:

What is Leprosy?
Leprosy is a chronic (long standing) infectious disease caused by specific bacterium called "Mycobacterium leprae".

What are its symptoms?
The disease mainly affects the cooler parts of the body, especially the skin, upper respiratory tract, testes, eyes, and superficial nerves. Red or brown skin lesions (spots or bumps) are common, and they are frequently insensitive to pain from pinpricks, pressure, or heat.

How is it contracted?
Most scientists believe leprosy is transmitted between persons by "nasal droplets", produced especially by coughing or sneezing.

Can it be treated?
Yes, a variety of antibiotics are very effective when taken over a long period of time (6 months to 2 years). However, there is a risk that the disease will return several years after completing treatment. Thus, doctors often avoid the term "cure" for leprosy.

Where is it found?
Leprosy is most common in tropical and sub-tropical countries with lower socioeconomic status. These include India, Nepal, Brazil and other parts of South America, Burma (Myanmar), Madagascar, and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

What is the prognosis?
In persons who comply with treatment, the disease usually resolves. However, there is a moderate risk for nerve damage, and this may often cause permanent disability if untreated. Even after treatment, the disease may recur, so patients require periodic assessment by trained medical professional.

Why is the word Leprosy used instead of Hansen's Disease?
Scientist Gerhard Armauer Hansen discovered the causative agent of leprosy, a bacillus named Mycobacterium leprae in Norway. The term "leper", which is an odious term for those who suffer from this particular disease, was the source of fear, brutality and isolation for those who contracted the disease from the time it was first discovered. At a convention in 1948 of the International Leprosy Association they voted to abolish the term "leper" and substituted "Hansen's Disease". However, they agreed that the term leprosy was a viable medical term, which is still widely ised by the medical profession.


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