Healthy Living

Leprosy Is Still A Health Problem Today, Especially In The US

Leprosy is a long-term infection by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis, which causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms, legs and skin areas around the body. It is also called Hansen's disease (HD) and is considered as an ancient malady that has been declared eliminated as a global public health problem in 2000. Although scientists have found its cure, why is this disease still a major health concern, especially in the United States?

In March 2017, there was a patient diagnosed with leprosy. The Mayo Clinic researchers were surprised and sought explanations as to why this disease still exists today. The researchers found nine patients diagnosed with leprosy over a 23-year period through their clinic's electronic health records.

In the US, leprosy is not a common skin disease. Due to its rarity, it is often missed, said Dr. Abinash Virk, infectious disease specialist and author of the new study. “The physician in India who is familiar with leprosy would see a patch and quickly do a test for a loss of sensation. Here, you wouldn't even test for loss of sensation, because it's not that common to see,” said Virk.

According to the World Health Organization, countries that have reported new cases of leprosy include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Brazil. The organization said each of these countries reported 1,000 new cases of leprosy. It also added that between 200,000 and 300,000 new cases are detected globally every year.

Meanwhile, about 200,000 cases of leprosy are diagnosed every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the US, 150 to 250 cases were diagnosed annually.

Virk said that the disease is treatable with a multi-drug regimen. It may take months or years of antibiotics to cure the disease. Usually, the treatment is successful. However, patients may have autoimmune reactions as the bacteria that cause leprosy are broken down.

Currently, over four million people live with leprosy-related disabilities. Unfortunately, although there is a cure, it remains one of the leading causes of long-term nerve damage worldwide. WHO is aiming for zero child leprosy infections by 2020. The organization is now offering highly effective leprosy treatments free of charge.

“Leprosy in children clearly shows that transmission of the infection is occurring in many communities and that detection effort are inadequate,” the Leader of WHO's Global Leprosy Programme in 2018, Erwin Cooreman, said.