Education & Resources
Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by a bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae. Official figures show that more than 213, 000 people mainly in Asia and Africa are infected, with approximately 249, 000 new cases reported in 2008.
M. leprae multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.
Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.
Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.
According to official reports received from 121 countries and territories, the global registered prevalence of leprosy at the beginning of 2009 stood at 213,036 cases, while the number of new cases detected during 2008 was 249 007. The number of new cases detected globally has fallen by 9126 (a 4% decrease) during 2008 compared with 2007.
Pockets of high endemicity still remain in some areas of Angola, Brazil, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal, and the United Republic of Tanzania.
Leprosy was recognized in the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt and India. The first known written mention of leprosy is dated 600 BC. Throughout history, the afflicted have often been ostracized by their communities and families.
Although leprosy was treated differently in the past, the first breakthrough occurred in the 1940s with the development of the drug dapsone, which arrested the disease. But the duration of the treatment was many years, even a lifetime, making it difficult for patients to follow. In the 1960s, M. leprae started to develop resistance to dapsone, the world’s only known anti-leprosy drug at that time. In the early 1960s, Rifampicin and clofazimine, the other two components of MDT, were discovered.
In 1981, a World Health Organization (WHO) Study Group recommended multidrug therapy (MDT). MDT consists of 3 drugs: dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine and this drug combination kills the pathogen and cures the patient.
– Excerpts from the LEPROSY FACT SHEET, February 2010, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (WHO), MEDIA CENTRE, copyright 2012 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs101/en/index.html