World Leprosy Day 2023: Expert debunks Hansen’s disease myths, shares facts to battle leprosy
India is still known to be the largest contributor to Leprosy globally. Here's all you need to know about the Hansen’s disease, the myths surrounding it and separating fact from fiction in battling Leprosy to breaking the stigma
While countries across the globe mark World Leprosy Day today i.e. January 29, India observes it on January 30th every year, coinciding with the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Hansen’s disease, commonly referred to as Leprosy, is an age-old disease that every continent has battled across centuries.
While GH Armauer Hansen discovered the existence of this bacteria in 1873, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that an effective cure was found and since then, it has been a mandate for every health organisation and country to battle the disease out of humans. However, India is still known to be the largest contributor to Leprosy globally but the government of India has made significant efforts to combat the disease through its National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP), which focuses on early detection and treatment.
One of the key strategies of the NLEP is to increase awareness and understanding of the disease through education and community mobilization and this includes educating people about how the disease is spread and debunking myths and misconceptions. In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Gowri Kulkarni, Head of Medical Operations at MediBuddy, debunked the myths surrounding it and separated fact from fiction to help the patients battle leprosy.
Despite being a highly treatable disease, leprosy continues to be shrouded in myths and misconceptions. These include -
Myth #1 Not curable
Fact: With the advent of science and innovation, multiple-drug cures have been implemented and proved to be beneficial for the suffering patients. Early diagnosis can also avoid disability and recovered patients can lead a normal life post-treatment. Also, the contraction of Leprosy cannot be a direct cause of death.
Myth #2 Highly contagious
Fact: Leprosy is not highly contagious and can only be transmitted post prolonged contact with a leprosy patient or through droplets of nasal or saliva. Hugging, shaking hands, or even sexual intercourse can’t transmit the bacteria. An expecting mother who is a leprosy patient cannot transmit the disease to the unborn child.
Myth #3 Age at which one contracts leprosy
Fact: The common perception is that leprosy is contracted at a young age. Leprosy can be contracted at any age, however, the diagnosis is tricky and ranges from infancy to old age.
Myth #4 Patients to live in isolation
Fact: People with Leprosy who are being treated with antibiotics can live a normal life among their family and friends and can continue to attend work or school. A person is not contagious after a few days of starting the treatment with antibiotics. However, the treatment must be finished as prescribed (which may take up to 2 years) to make sure the infection doesn’t come back.
Myth #5 Leprosy causes the fingers and toes to fall off
Fact: Toes and fingers do not “fall off” due to leprosy. The bacteria that causes leprosy attacks the nerves of the fingers and toes and causes them to become numb. Burns and cuts on numb parts may go unnoticed, which may lead to infection and permanent damage, and eventually the body may reabsorb the digit. This happens in advanced stages of untreated disease.
Talking about the possible remedies, Dr Gowri Kulkarni revealed:
- Multiple Drug Therapy (MDT) is used to treat Hansen’s Disease. In this therapy, the doctor prescribes a course of two-three antibiotics simultaneously. This therapy shows the effect and can lead to cure in one-two years. The NLEP also works to provide free MDT to all leprosy patients.
- The identification of pale skin patches or red pigmentation should immediately be brought to the attention of medical experts, as this condition cannot be self-diagnosed and requires biopsy.
- The Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG), a vaccine given to an infant for the prevention of TB can also help control Leprosy by 50%.
According to Dr Gowri Kulkarni, the silver linings are that 95% of people are naturally immune to Leprosy as reported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She assured, “The success ratio of disease treatment is extremely high. The record of two decades shows 16 million completely treated and cured patients. The disease isn’t highly contagious. In most countries, Leprosy is in an endemic state. With effective treatment and advancement in science, the disease doesn’t require isolation of the patient.”
She stressed, “India needs to continue to focus on increasing awareness in the understanding of the disease, early detection and treatment, and addressing the social and economic factors that contribute to the persistence of leprosy in certain areas. Additionally, efforts should be made to improve the quality of life of people affected by leprosy and to reduce the social stigma associated with the disease. Implementing community-based initiatives is essential to achieve the goals of leprosy stigma elimination.”