Diseases And Conditions: Leprosy: Dreaded Disease

Learn what can be done about the dreaded disease leprosy.

Leprosy - the very word raises fears in many people's minds. It is a disease that has long been associated with uncleanness, with ostracism, with death. In Biblical times a sufferer was required by law to cry out "unclean, unclean" when in proximity to others. Centuries ago in England, a leper was considered to be officially dead and his property was seized. His house was often burned and he was cast out of the community. The word leprosy has, in fact, such a negative connotation to it that the ancient disease has been given a new name - Hansen's Disease.

Leprosy affects some 13,000,000 people around the earth. Early indications that one has contracted the disease are flat discolorations or pale patches on the skin. Areas of the skin may also be insensitive to touch, as well as areas that no longer grow hair. Nodules may also be seen under the skin.

Contrary to popular opinion, leprosy is not highly communicable. It is extremely rare that a leper colony volunteer will contract the disease. Babies and young children are , however, more susceptible than adults. The main treatment for leprosy for centuries was chaulmoogra oil, which was applied to the affected part of the body. This proved ineffective in arresting the condition and sufferers were usually transported to isolated colonies. These were, on the whole, most depressing places to be. In the 1940's, however, Sulfone drugs began to be used. These proved far more effective in stopping the disease and even curing it altogether. Early and prolonged treatment - for up to ten years - has given good prospects of full recovery. Thalidomide and Rifampicin have also proved effective in arresting the condition.

New understanding and treatment meant that lepers no longer have to be confined and isolated. This has made the disease far less stigmatised than it was. As a result many more people have been willing to come forward and have their condition diagnosed and treated.

There is a caution, however. It seems that the leprosy bacteria is steadily developing resistance to the drugs that are currently being used to treat it. According to the World Health Organization, "urgent action must be taken to prevent the further development of resistance." An alternative, multi-drug treatment is currently being sought.

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