One of humankind's earliest recorded diseases is leprosy. It is a chronic and
communicable illness caused by a microorganism called Mycobacterium leprae which
was isolated by a Norwegian doctor, G. Armauer Hansen, in 1874. Some doctors
prefer to call it Hansen's disease because of the stigma attached to the word
leprosy. Leprosy has afflicted humanity since time immemorial. It once affected
every continent and left behind a terrifying image in history and human memory
of mutilation, rejection and exclusion from society.
In the beginning of 2003,
the number of leprosy patients in the world was around 524 000, as reported by
103 countries. About 612 000 new cases were detected during 2002. It is
estimated that there are between one and two million people visibly and
irreversibly disabled due to past and present leprosy that require them to be
cared for by the community in which they live.
There are two main kinds of leprosy. The most common is tuberculoid or neural
leprosy in which the microorganisms attach to and deaden the nerves just beneath
the skin. In the second type called lepromatous leprosy, the skin becomes thick
and nodules may form on the face and body. Leprosy does not eat away tissues, as
is commonly believed. As lepers often have no feeling in their hands or feet,
injuries from bruises, cuts and bums are ignored, and the cumulative damage
wears away skin and bone.
In a majority of cases, the sign of leprosy is a pale or reddish patch on the
skin that is insensitive to heat, pain or even touch. In about ten per cent of
the cases, the skin in the affected area thickens and becomes shiny.
Occasionally, an early symptom is numbness or tingling. It is important to
recognise these danger signs quickly since early treatment prevents
deformities and reduces the chance of
infecting other people.
There was no reliable treatment for leprosy until the early 1940s. Today's
standard medication is using dapsone to suppress it. The treatment is often
prolonged and the patient has to take the tablets for a few years and in rare
cases, for a lifetime. Dapsone does not destroy the mycobacterium, but it
arrests the organism's growth and makes the leprosy patient non-infectious.
Seldom is leprosy completely removed from the body; it can only be halted using
a multi-drug treatment. In addition, patients are taught to take care of
themselves using a kind of visual check for significant nerve damage. Without
the sensations of pain to identify cuts and bruises, patients must watch
themselves constantly or be subject to dangerous infection.