New Delhi (India), February 17: Dr. Ravikiran Barigala, Internal Medicine & Infectious Disease Specialist, Apollo 24|7, is one of the best infectious disease specialists in Hyderabad. His expertise and skill make him well-suited to treat infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis (TB), sexually transmitted infections (STIs), bone infections, respiratory infections such as swine flu, COVID-19 and influenzas, and urine infections caused by a number of bacterial, fungal and viral agents.
A large number of people around the globe still suffer from leprosy due to the lack of awareness and continued stigma plaguing this easily curable disease. Nearly 2-3 million people worldwide are currently living with disabilities related to this illness. In fact, more than half of all the new cases of leprosy are diagnosed in India. Let’s learn more about this disease and address the most common myths surrounding it.
What is Leprosy?
Also referred to as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is a progressive, chronic bacterial infection caused by the bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. This disease primarily affects your skin, the upper respiratory tract, the nerves of your extremities, and the lining of your nose. It leads to the development of muscle weakness, skin ulcers and nerve damage. If left untreated, it can lead to severe disfigurement and considerable disability. Its major symptoms include:
- Skin lesions
- Numbness in arms, hands, legs and feet
- Muscle weakness
Common Myths About Leprosy and What’s the Truth
There are several myths and misconceptions related to leprosy. The most common ones include:
Myth #1: Leprosy is extremely contagious.
Fact: Leprosy is only a mildly infectious disease, and 95% of the global population is already immune to it. Only long-term close contact with an infected person can lead to its contraction. For example, any casual physical contact with someone suffering from leprosy, like shaking hands, will not result in the spread of this disease. It transmits through small droplets from the mouth and nose of infected individuals. Leprosy can neither be inherited nor transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy. It is also not transmitted through sexual contact. This illness develops very slowly and can take years for an infected person to show symptoms, making it difficult to trace the source of infection. However, once a patient has received the treatment for 72 hours to a week, they stop being infectious.
Myth #2: Leprosy is an incurable disease.
Fact: Leprosy is completely treatable and curable through multi-drug therapy (MDT), which is a combination of three different antibiotics. The treatment for leprosy can last for anywhere between 6 months and a year or even longer. An individual undergoing MDT stops being infectious within a week. However, if the intake of antibiotics stops before the completion of the course or if the patient is exposed to unhygienic surroundings, there is a chance of recurrence.
Myth #3: Leprosy can make your fingers and toes fall off.
Fact: Many people don’t know that deformities due to leprosy only happen in the advanced stages of the disease. The bacteria causing the illness attack the nerve endings and adversely affect the ability to feel pain. This loss of sensation causes people to injure themselves, resulting in infections and tissue loss. When these wounds don’t heal properly because of repeated injuries to the numb areas, it can lead to amputations. The illness itself is not responsible for the body parts to fall off. However, such consequences of leprosy are entirely avoidable if caught and treated on time.
Myth #4: Leprosy no longer exists.
Fact: Leprosy is widely believed to be the oldest illness known to man and it’s still around today. While the prevalence of this disease is negligible in high-income countries, it still exists in several parts of the world. The largest number of leprosy cases are found in Africa, Asia and South America. Nearly 200,000 people globally are diagnosed with this illness each year. In 2005, India declared that this disease was no longer a public health concern. However, this only means that leprosy’s prevalence rate dropped down to under one case in every 10,000 people. The truth of the matter is that India accounted for the world’s largest number of leprosy cases in 2020, followed by Indonesia and Brazil.
Myth #5: Only poor or old people get leprosy.
Fact: As mentioned earlier, leprosy is a bacterial infection contracted from an infected individual or the environment. It can affect anyone, regardless of economic status, gender, class, age or race. This illness affects those with a weakened immune system. However, poor nutrition and sanitation can also trigger the infection. Furthermore, it is also believed to be highly prevalent in old people because of the bacteria’s long incubation period and extremely delayed visible symptoms and signs.
Despite the easy and effective treatment available, leprosy is one of the most stigmatised diseases in the world and those suffering from it are shunned and discriminated against. Education and awareness regarding leprosy are essential to decrease the prevalence of this disease. One should not hesitate to see the doctor immediately on noticing any of the symptoms associated with leprosy.