The last Sunday of January every year is set aside as an awareness day for one of the world’s oldest and most misunderstood medical conditions. It has been around for thousands of years and many misconceptions remain about leprosy. It is virtually unheard of in the western world but still occurs in poorer communities in the developing world.
What is Leprosy?
The first mention of the condition comes from writings in India from around 600BC. In the Sanskrit texts, it’s referred to as “Kushtha” which means “eaten away”. This is one of the hallmarks of leprosy, but not the only symptom, and not guaranteed in patients.
Leprosy is a disease caused by one of two types of bacteria; the second was only identified as recently as 2008 but epidemiologists have known about the first for around a century. These bacteria infect the body and immediately go on the attack against the nervous system. This means the patient will start to lose feeling in their extremities and fail to feel pain.
But what causes it? Aside from contact with an infected person, those with lowered immune system, people with poor nutrition and related illnesses are more likely to contract the disease. In some places in the world, people may catch it from armadillos.
Myths About Leprosy
The first major myth, and one that has perhaps proved the biggest hindrance is that leprosy is a mark against the person. The belief that lepers have “sinned” in some way is an unpleasant fact of the past from a time before medical science, but it is not one that has died out as readily as it should have done.
It is not true that leprosy is sexually transmitted. Although it may be transmitted in this way, there are no guarantees. It is not its primary method of spreading. Neither is it true that you can catch leprosy by merely touching an infected person. The disease is airborne, and the most common method of catching it is in water droplets – typically from the nose. It is spread through sneezing and coughing on an uninfected person, not by merely touching them. With modern treatments, people with leprosy are usually not infectious after the first month.
The bacteria can sometimes eat away parts of the body, but it is not actually a “rotting” disease like gangrene. Bits of the body do not “fall off”. What is more likely is the destruction of the nervous system in some parts of the body that lead to secondary infections. It is these that may cause the patient to lose parts of their body.
The final myth is the belief that the disease is no longer a problem. The WHO says that there is a new infection every two minutes, which makes 720 people every single day and around 210,000 new infections every year; most of the new infections are children in areas of poor nutrition.
Why World Leprosy Day?
Like most awareness days, World Leprosy Day exists to raise awareness. Leprosy though stands out above most medical conditions in that so much stigma still exists about it. As one of the world’s oldest identifiable diseases (around 2,600 years old), old myths persist. These myths provide a barrier between improving living conditions of those with the disease. The term “leper” is no longer a term to describe a person with a serious medical condition, it is used to describe anybody who should be avoided.
Advances have been made towards the study and treatment of leprosy, but it is not extinct. Many people still think that leprosy is a disease of the past, but it remains a very real and present threat. This is why we need World Leprosy Day in the 21st century.