Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 26: Leprosy: Hansen’s Disease
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What is leprosy? It is an infectious disease that develops very slowly. It is caused by germs (bacilli) that affect mostly the skin and nerves. It can cause a variety of skin problems, loss of feeling, and paralysis of the hands and feet:
loss of feeling (burns and scars)
loss of eyebrows
thick or lumpy ear lobes
marks or rings without feeling inside
deformities of hands and feet
painless ulcers of the feet
How do people get leprosy? It can spread only from some persons who have untreated leprosy, and only to other persons who have ‘low resistance’ to the disease. It is probably spread either through sneezing or coughing, or through skin contact. Most persons who come into contact with leprosy have a natural ability to resist it. Either they do not get it at all, or they get a small unnoticeable infection that soon goes away completely.
From the time a person is first infected with leprosy germs, it often takes 3 or 4 years for the first signs of the disease to appear.
Leprosy is not caused by evil spirits, by doing something bad, by eating certain foods, or by bathing in river water, as some people believe. It is not hereditary and children of mothers with leprosy are not born with it. However, children who live in close contact with someone who has untreated leprosy are more likely to get it.
How common is leprosy? Leprosy is much more common in some parts of the world than others. It is more common where there are crowded living conditions and poor hygiene. But rich people can also get it.
More than 1 million people have leprosy, mostly in Asia. But 16 million people have been cured of leprosy over the past 20 years.
Leprosy can be cured. There are medicines that kill leprosy germs. Usually within a few days of beginning treatment, a person can no longer spread the disease to others.
Can leprosy be cured? Yes. There are medicines that kill leprosy germs. Usually within a few days of beginning treatment, a person can no longer spread the disease to others. (In fact, most persons, when their leprosy is first diagnosed, can no longer spread it.) However, treatment in some persons must be continued for years to prevent the disease from coming back.
Is early treatment important? Yes. Early treatment stops the spread of leprosy to others. Also, if treatment starts before loss of feeling, paralysis, and deformities have appeared, recovery is usually complete and the person is not physically or socially disabled.
Persons receiving regular, effective treatment do not spread leprosy.