World Leprosy Day 2023: Common myths about this chronic disease

On World Leprosy Day 2023, a doctor tells you about common leprosy myths and why early detection of this disease is important.
World Leprosy Day
World Leprosy Day is observed in January every year. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Dr Karthiyayini Amar Mahadevan Updated: 28 Mar 2024, 12:39 pm IST
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Leprosy, a chronic infectious disease once feared as the most debilitating disease, has been detected to be caused by a slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. The microbe has been identified and is effectively met through a multidrug regime and thoroughly treated. However, this disease can still be devastating and cause permanent physical deformities if left untreated. The lack of knowledge about the disease has led to the development of multiple leprosy myths.

Myths about leprosy

Leprosy is associated with significant societal stigma and prejudice due to several myths. Come, let’s bust some leprosy myths and share the facts about leprosy.

Myth: Leprosy is hereditary.
Fact: This disease is not genetically transmitted.

Myth: Leprosy is contagious and spreads through hugging, shaking hands or sitting next to each other.
Fact: This disease is transmitted via nasal and oral secretions during close and frequent contact with untreated patients.

Myth: Babies born to mothers with leprosy will acquire the disease too.
Fact: It does not spread transplacentally.

Myth: Leprosy is a sexually transmitted disease.
Fact: It does not spread through sexual contact.

myths around leprosy
Lack of leprosy awareness has increased myths about the disease. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

What are the challenges in early leprosy diagnosis?

Leprosy is caused by a slow growing bacterium. It reproduces very slowly. The incubation lasts for around 5 years, and leprosy symptoms start surfacing within a year. But it might last for years. The stigma and discrimination associated with leprosy makes individuals conceal the disease and delay its detection. Knowledge about leprosy is hence, the need of the hour.

How can leprosy be detected early?

Leprosy affects the skin and nerves predominantly. Skin manifestation is one of the earlier symptoms leprosy. Any discoloured patch with diminished or absent sensation needs to be checked to rule out. The disease is diagnosed through skin or nerve biopsy.

Tips to prevent leprosy transmission

1. Those with risk factors such as old age and immuno-suppressed/immune deficiency need to be screened for any specific skin manifestation with impaired sensation.
2. Early detection must be managed through accurate diagnosis, prompt contact tracing and comprehensive treatment.
3. The social stigma that leads to discrimination against people with leprosy should be addressed through awareness initiatives. Public education should be made available through posters, flyers in workplaces, educational institutions, etc. School children should be told about the facts about leprosy that it is completely curable and that one should seek medical assistance without delay.
4. People with leprosy are infectious if they are untreated. So, motivate those engaged in treatment to complete it.
5. Policies to revise the discriminatory laws, particularly those that include leprosy as a ground for divorce.

leprosy stigma
There is a stigma about leprosy in the society. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

The last word

A well-structured social support system to rehabilitate those who are affected by leprosy to reintegrate into society and lead a normal life is one of the most significant measures to eliminate the stigma, reassure the individual and reform society. Developing countries like India must implement strategies to curtail the transmission.

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The US Centers for Disease control and Prevention provides detailed information on the symptoms, transmission, diagnosis and treatment, while the World Health Organization constantly works towards promoting advocacy and cooperation for the eradication of leprosy.

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About the Author

Dr Karthiyayini Amar Mahadevan, M.B.B.S., DNB., PGDDN (Developmental Neurology), is the head of wellness and wellbeing at Columbia Pacific Communities. She is also working as a consultant in Child Development at SPARRC Institute for Rehabilitation and fitness in lifestyle disease management. ...Read More

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