DENVER, Colorado — Suspected to be the world’s oldest, human susceptible disease, leprosy is a global health concern that effects over 200,000 people every year. Progress made to manage the disease has been substantial, and provides hope in the fight against other diseases. However, there is room for continued improvement.
Leprosy is spread through a bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae, which multiplies slowly, taking five years to incubate, and up to 20 years to show symptoms in humans. Leprosy develops in skin lesions, nerve loss and changes in the mucosa of the upper respiratory tract.
Curable through a series of antibiotic drugs, leprosy in the developing world has been managed to a large degree. Despite common misconceptions, leprosy is difficult to spread, usually transmitted via the nose and mouth droplets of an infected, untreated person. This makes containing leprosy simpler than containing malaria or ebola.
Leprosy remains a problem in the developing world, despite global progress. The WHO reports that 6 out of every 10 leprosy cases originates from Southeast Asia, in regions characterized heavily by poverty. 83 percent of the world’s leprosy cases are in India, Brazil, Myanmar, Indonesia, Madagascar and Nepal, with the highest concentration in India.
Beyond the basic nature of the bacteria, researchers have little understanding of leprosy, which makes preventing it in areas like India challenging. In addition, because healthcare centers in impoverished areas are often lacking in the sanitation department, leprosy can spread more easily.
Though there is less stigma surrounding leprosy today than when it was first presented in humans, society still struggles to create a welcoming community for those with leprosy. Some health experts advocate for raising awareness, so as to eliminate any remaining stigma and make managing the disease easier.
There is continual progress in the fight against leprosy, which lends hope to managing leprosy in the developing world. American researchers who work for the the American Leprosy Missions (ALM), and the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), a non-profit organization that focuses on neglected diseases in the developing world, have set a timeline to develop a vaccine to treat leprosy.
By the end of 2015, the vaccine will be tested on human volunteers to assess the vaccine’s prospects in the world. Because there is little understanding of leprosy, preventing its inception would dramatically decrease numbers across the globe and make the treatment process much simpler.
With over 200,000 international cases every year, leprosy still requires the health care industry’s attention. An increased understanding of the disease, further prevention methods and an accepting community for those with leprosy will help make the condition a smaller problem in the developing world.
Sources: World Health Organization, SciDev.Net, The Free Information Society, The New York Times 1, Clinical Key, DVB, The New York Times 2, The Health Site