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Leprosy: Causes, Symptoms,Treatments, And Prevention

What is Leprosy?

Leprosy (a.k.a: Hansen’s Disease) is a chronic and contagious disease caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium Leprae. Due to high rate of transmission, leprosy stands as a major health problem in many countries. It is estimated that 64% of the leprosy cases occur in India. It is one of the important causes of peripheral neuropathy worldwide.

LeprosyMycobacterium Leprae was discovered by Armauer Hansen. Therefore, leprosy is names as Hansen’s disease after his name. This disease was considered as lethal condition in the past but the evolving medicine and modern technology helped in easy management of the disease.

Types of Leprosy Include:

As per the person’s immune response to the disease leprosy is of two types:

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WHO categorizes the disease based on the number of affected skin areas. According to which leprosy is of two types:

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The infection spreads through the droplets that are expelled from the infected person’s cough or sneeze.

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There are chances of spreading leprosy by repeated contact with the untreated person.  Any mucous secretions from the Leprosy infected person can spread the infection.

How does Leprosy Spread?

The bacteria reproduce very slowly, it takes 12-14 days to reproduce within the cells. The bacterial growth is very slow and usually, it grows in macrophages and Schwann cells of the infected individual.

The incubation period of the disease is up to 5 years.

What are the Symptoms of Leprosy?

The disease develops slowly and damages skin and the peripheral nervous system. The bacteria also invade eyes and thin tissue lining the nose internally.

It may take as long as 20 years for the symptoms to appear.

Skin Manifestations Include: Deformed skin sores, bumps or lumps that remain persistent for several weeks to months. The sores are generally pale in color. Blisters and ulcers are also seen on the skin.

Nerve Damage Causes: Loss of sensation in the arms, legs and feet, pins and needles sensation, nerve injury and weight loss.

What are the Risk Factors for Leprosy?

Leprosy affects all the people irrespective of age and background. However, some factors influence leprosy. They are:

  • There is a high risk of developing leprosy for the people who live in endemic areas such as India, China, Japan and others.
  • The risk of infection is high in people with genetic defects in the immune system.
  • There is a risk of acquiring the infection through certain animals such as African chimpanzee and others that carry bacteria.

What are the Complications of Leprosy?

Delayed diagnosis and treatment of Leprosy result in serious complications. They include:

  • Blindness
  • Chronic nasal congestion, nosebleeds, and collapse of the nasal septum
  • Disfigurement
  • Erectile dysfunction and infertility
  • Glaucoma (an eye disease caused due to the damaged optic nerve)
  • Hair loss, specifically on the eyebrows and eyelashes
  • Inability to use the hands and feet
  • Iritis (iris of the eye gets inflamed)
  • Kidney failure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Permanent nerve damage in the arms and legs

How Leprosy is Diagnosed?

The doctor performs a physical exam initially to assess the symptoms. Diagnostic tests that are performed include:

  • Skin Biopsy: During this procedure, the doctor removes a small amount of skin which is sent to a laboratory for microscopic testing. It is one of the painless and low-risk procedures.
  • Lepromin Skin Test: The doctor injects small amount of leprosy-causing bacteria into the skin, preferably on the upper forearm and is observed for the irritation to develop.
  • Skin Smear Test: A sample of skin smear is collected and is examined to detect the number of bacilli present per high power field.

Treatment for Leprosy:

Leprosy is a curable disease. In the last two decades, 14 million people with leprosy were cured. The doctor would prescribe antibiotics such as:

  • Clofazamine
  • Dapsone
  • Minocycline
  • Ofloxacin
  • Rifampin

The doctor prescribes more than one antibiotic for treating leprosy.

As per the patient’s requirement, the doctor also prescribes anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin, prednisone, or orthalidomide.

How to Prevent Leprosy?

Leprosy can be prevented by avoiding close contact with the untreated infected person. To stop the spread of leprosy the infected person is advised to cover the mouth with cloth or tissue while coughing or sneezing.

To prevent long term complications the patient is advised to take the prescribed medications for specified duration. However, timely diagnosis and treatment help in preventing complications and completely curing leprosy.

There is no specific vaccine available for the prevention of leprosy. However, Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine used to prevent tuberculosis is effective in preventing leprosy. Addition of killed Mycobacterium Leprae to BCG vaccine would increase the efficacy of the vaccine.

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