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Can leprosy be transmitted by physical contact?

ByZarafshan Shiraz, Delhi
Feb 01, 2023 05:26 PM IST

India accounts for almost 60% of world's leprosy cases. There is a strong social stigma against it and people still believe leprosy cannot be treated, its highly contagious, adults are mostly affected by leprosy; it is a hereditary disease etc but can leprosy be transmitted by physical contact?

Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease and is one of the oldest diseases known to mankind yet is one of the most stigmatised diseases where every year, over 200,000 such cases are detected globally and India accounts for more than half of these, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As per National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) data, India was declared "leprosy-free" in 2005 but today India accounts for almost 60 per cent of the world's new leprosy cases as there is a strong social stigma against leprosy and the after-effects of leprosy can be social rejection, loss of employment and sometimes as stressful as the failure to obtain proper housing or living a normal life since people still live with beliefs like leprosy cannot be treated, its highly contagious, adults are mostly affected by leprosy; it is a hereditary disease, etc.

Can leprosy be transmitted by physical contact? (Photo by Twitter/EmbaCubaJamaica)

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Sumit Gupta, Hon. Secretary of Indian Association of Dermatologists, Venereologists and Leprologists (IADVL) in Delhi, shared, "Declaring Epidemiological Elimination of Leprosy in 2005 has not only been misleading but also has probably taken the public mindspace away from Leprosy, which continues to maim thousands every year. Additionally, Covid-19 pandemic impacted Leprosy control screening and awareness programmes, which has further increased the burden.”

As per Dr Rohit Batra, Dermatologist and Dermatosurgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and President of IADVL in New Delhi, “Leprosy is not highly contagious but repeated contact with an untreated person for a longer period leads to the spreading of the disease. It has aerosol transmission. The bacterium dividing time is slow; therefore, the disease has an average incubation period of 5 years. Symptoms can appear from within one year to as long as 20 years. It manifests as muscle weakness, numbness in the extremities, and skin lesions resulting in decreased sensation to touch, temperature, or pain. Multidrug therapy (MDT) has been developed by WHO which uses a combination of antibiotics for the treatment of the disease.”

Dr Gupta insisted, “Imparting proper knowledge about the disease to the sufferer and others is very much required to improve the quality of life of the patient. Tragically, after receiving complete treatment for leprosy, patients continue to face discrimination because the general public is unaware of their condition. This obliterates their social life, opportunity to find a school/ college or get employment. Infact, finding a partner becomes a distant dream for them. The social stigma and discrimination push the patients towards mental disorders and negative emotional states. To combat mental health issues, coping mechanisms should be strengthened for those affected and the negative community attitude should be changed by spreading awareness.”

Dr Batra highlighted, “Due to lack of awareness about the diagnosis, treatment, stigma and discrimination associated with the disease, people are not willing to come forward for the treatment. Encouragement to those infected to step ahead for the treatment is required and the perception of the society towards them has to be changed. Contrary to popular belief, leprosy cannot be transmitted by physical contact, and after receiving multi-drug therapy (MDT) for 72 hours, an infected individual is no longer contagious. Infact, at government-approved centres, MDT is provided without charge to all leprosy patients. Additionally, MDT is accessible in Primary Health Centers to registered patients. Therefore, it is very important for the patient to meet a certified dermatologist if they come across any symptoms of Leprosy.”

Every year on the last Sunday in January, World Leprosy Day is observed to spread the message that the condition is totally treatable and is nothing to be ashamed of. The discrimination must end and the stigma must be erased. As a society, we must step up and assist those who are in need.

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