Leprosy: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is a slow-developing disease that commonly afflicts those in developing countries. Find out more about the different types of leprosy, its causes, symptoms, and the treatments available.

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Leprosy mainly affects the skin and nerves. If left untreated, there can be progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.

The disease largely affects those between 10–20 years of age, and men more often than women.

Environmental factors such as unhygienic and crowded living conditions contribute to the spread of the disease. Malnutrition and a weak immune system also favour infection.

Leprosy is a chronic disease with an incubation period of about five years. Leprosy symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.

The disease is not highly infectious and treatments are available. It is transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contact with untreated cases.

Types of Leprosy

The disease is believed to spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. The types of leprosy may vary, depending on the immune system of the person infected.

Those with a compromised immune system typically develop multibacillary leprosy (infectious), while those with a stronger immune system are more likely to develop paucibacillary leprosy (non-infectious).

Leprosy Causes and Prevention

Leprosy is a caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae, related to the causative organism of tuberculosis.

Currently, there is no vaccine for leprosy prevention. However, it can be cured with medication. Therefore, early diagnosis and treatment may help to reduce associated symptoms and complications.

Leprosy Symptoms

Paucibacillary leprosy is characterised by one or more hypopigmented skin macules (flat lesions) couple with a loss of sensation. Some nerves may be damaged and enlarged.

Multibacillary leprosy is characterised by:
Numerous shiny, non-itchy reddish nodules and plaques (raised lesions), thickened dermis
Involvement of the nasal mucosa with resulting nasal congestion and epistaxis (bleeding from the nose)
Nerve involvement
Loss of eyelashes and eyebrows

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is made based on:
Clinical leprosy symptoms and signs (chronic skin lesions, thickened nerves, muscle weakness)
Biopsy

Possible Complications

These include:
Damage to the peripheral nerves leading to numbness, muscle weakness, or even paralysis and dry skin
Infections resulting from injuries, which in turn lead to ulcers that damage the skin, joints and bones, with the consequent loss of toes and fingers or secondary deformities

Figures on the current leprosy situation:
In nine countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America leprosy is still considered a public health problem
These countries account for about 75 percent of the global disease burden
According to the latest available information, intensive efforts are still needed to reach the leprosy elimination target in five countries: Brazil, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Nepal

Leprosy Treatment

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is curable. Treating the disease in its early stages can help prevent disability.

Multidrug therapy (MDT) consisting of three drugs is recommended: Dapsone, Rifampicin and Clofazimine. This drug combination kills the bacteria and cures the patient preventing transmission and onset of more serious symptoms.

With leprosy treatment, persons who have paucibacillary leprosy may be cured within six months and those who have the multibacillary form may be cured within one year.

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Leprosy: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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