CLEMSON, South Carolina — American researchers are on the brink of creating the world’s first vaccine against leprosy. Toxicology tests will be performed by the end of 2014 and phase one clinical trials in human volunteers will begin in 2015.
Leprosy is a chronic infection caused by bacillus mycobacterium leprae. It is found mostly in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia. The disease has various effects including the development of skin lesions, loss of eyesight and the inability to feel pain.
Leprosy has become treatable through multi-drug therapy, but the vaccine that is being tested now will prevent the disease. The whole project of developing a vaccination has cost $4 million.
The creation of this vaccine was a partnership between the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI.) located in Seattle, the American Leprosy Missions (ALM,) located in Greenville, South Carolina and the Philippine-based Cebu Leprosy and Tuberculosis Research Foundation.
The development of a successful vaccine for leprosy has been a long-standing attempt for researchers around the world. The breakthrough that was discovered for this vaccine is that “for the first time, the genome of the bacteria that cause leprosy has been identified and mapped,” said Arturo Cunanan Jr., chief of the Culion sanitarium and general hospital in Palawan, Philippines.
Leprosy is still a prevalent disease for a lot of countries in Asia and Africa, and the stigma that exists about the disease is severe. Leper colonies still exist in India, China and parts of Africa. In these places, people who have been affected by leprosy are separated from the rest of their society to prevent it from spreading.
Leper colonies are essentially islands where people with leprosy go to die. It is described as a “tiny ghost town-like neighborhood consisting of a few dozen rural single-story homes and buildings,” according to an article by CBS News about a Hawaiian leper colony. “There are no schools, no children, no movie theaters, no sunbathers at the beach, no restaurants or supermarkets. There is no traffic signal for the narrow road that winds through the settlement to the airport that resembles a barn.”
People living in a leper colony are given very little and have no semblance of a life. The patients are taken away from their families and friends and forced to live alone. These people who are banished to leper colonies do not attend school, work or enjoy life at all.
With the creation of a vaccine, these leper colonies can hopefully become a system of the past. Cunanan said, “So if scientists can develop a vaccine that can prevent people from developing the disease, that will have a great impact in overcoming the disability and its social stigma.”