News / Health

    Leprosy Affects Millions But Can Be Wiped Out, Expert Says

    FILE - A patient shows the effects of leprosy on his hands in Myanchaung Leprosy Hospice, Halegu township, Yangon Division, Jan. 21, 2014.
    FILE - A patient shows the effects of leprosy on his hands in Myanchaung Leprosy Hospice, Halegu township, Yangon Division, Jan. 21, 2014.
    Reuters

    Millions of people live with the effects of leprosy and tens of thousands of new cases are reported every year, but the debilitating disease can be eliminated given enough resources, an organization helping to curb the disease said.

    It is one of the oldest known diseases, first mentioned in written records in 600 BC, and affects the poorest and most marginalized communities. If untreated, it can lead to permanent disability.

    Although the number of cases has plummeted from 5.2 million in 1985 to about 210,000 a year now, it still exists in more than 100 countries. The majority of cases are found in India, Brazil and Indonesia.

    "The last mile is the most difficult one and the most expensive one, and one where you need most innovation and resources," said Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation.

    The foundation has run leprosy programs for decades and is working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce the spread of the disease.

    "We cannot give up ... now that we are almost there," Aerts said in a telephone interview from Basel, Switzerland.

    FILE - A nun tends to man with leprosy in the isolated village of Nigua, south of Santo Domingo, July 9, 2012.
    FILE - A nun tends to man with leprosy in the isolated village of Nigua, south of Santo Domingo, July 9, 2012.

    The WHO has made free treatment available globally since 1995, initially through the Nippon Foundation, and since 2000 through the pharmaceutical company Novartis and the Novartis Foundation.

    In 2000, when the number of cases fell to less than one in 10,000 people, the WHO declared leprosy was no longer a public health problem, and the political and financial commitment to curbing the disease then dropped, Aerts said.

    "With that we saw a drastic drop in case detection rate as well, which was definitely not linked to a decline in transmission, but most probably a decline in reporting or diagnosing of leprosy," she added.

    Diagnosis can take 20 years

    Leprosy, a bacterial infection, is curable using a combination of three drugs. But it can only be diagnosed once visible symptoms appear, and this can take up to 20 years.

    It is spread through droplets from the nose and mouth, after frequent contact with a sufferer.

    One way of stopping the disease from spreading is to trace all contacts of patients and give them preventative treatment.

    Because the disease carries a stigma going back centuries, many sufferers are afraid to come forward for help, or are reluctant to let friends and neighbors be contacted for preventative treatment.

    FILE - A woman, hands disfigured by leprosy and with no means of support, begs for food or any other offerings that can help her survive at a leper colony outside Juba, South Sudan’s capital.FILE - A woman, hands disfigured by leprosy and with no means of support, begs for food or any other offerings that can help her survive at a leper colony outside Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
    x
    FILE - A woman, hands disfigured by leprosy and with no means of support, begs for food or any other offerings that can help her survive at a leper colony outside Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
    FILE - A woman, hands disfigured by leprosy and with no means of support, begs for food or any other offerings that can help her survive at a leper colony outside Juba, South Sudan’s capital.

    People who develop disabilities from leprosy are often excluded from their families and their work, and women may find it harder to marry if they are known to have the disease, Aerts said.

    Women are much less likely to be diagnosed than men — they comprised just 36 percent of new cases in 2014, WHO figures show.

    Nearly 10 percent of new cases are children, according to the WHO, which is developing a strategy to improve early detection by 2020 and stop all children from developing deformities.

    "Children with leprosy don't get a chance," Aerts said.

    "They start their lives excluded because they have no more fingers or they cannot close their eyes any more, and you see how they suffer because they were not diagnosed in time."

    Adult patients may have been infected years before they were diagnosed, but children catching the disease is a sign the infection is being spread now.

    "It's very worrying that this is still the case," Aerts said.

    "That's what is driving us to diagnose people earlier, to make sure we see fewer and fewer children with the disease, which would mean ... the disease is being transmitted less and less."

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora