Leprosy: Causes, symptoms, complications, diagnosis, treatments and prevention
Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease (HD). It is named after the scientist Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered mycobacterium leper, a slow-growing bacterium, the leprosy agent, that causes the disease. It is a chronic infectious condition that has affected humans for 4000 years.
Leprosy is primarily a granulomatous medical condition that mainly affects the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract. Leprosy occurs in two forms: tuberculosis leprosy (tuberculoid) and lepromatous leprosy. Between these two forms of leprosy, there are intermediate leprosy and borderline leprosy.
Did you know that leprosy can be cured before reading this article?
Bacteria that causes leprosy
In fact leprosy is defined by the number and type of skin sores. Tuberculoid is less severe form of leprosy. A leprosy patient affected by this type of leprosy has only one or a few patches of flat, pale colored skin (paucibacillary leprosy). The person experiences numbness in the affected area due to damage to the sensory nerves. This leprosy is less contagious than the other form.
Lepromatous leprosy is the more severe form of leprosy. Person affected by lepromatous suffer from widespread skin bumps and rashes (multibacillary leprosy), muscle weakness and numbness. Kidneys, nose and the male reproductive organs may also be affected. Lepromatous leprosy is more contagious than tuberculosis leprosy.
Leprosy causes severe disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the limbs. Leprosy has been around since ancient times. As on date more than 180,000 people worldwide are affected by this dreaded medical condition.
Causes of leprosy
Transmission of leprosy causing bacteria, mycobacterium leprae, occurs via droplets from the nose and mouth of persons affected by severe form of the disease. According to a study, around 50 percent of patients have a history of intimate contact with an infected person, usually a member of the household.
Mycobacterium leprae is an intracellular, acid-fast bacterium. It is aerobic and rod-shaped. This bacterium is surrounded by the waxy cell membrane coating characteristic of mycobacterium species.
Abbot Richard Wallingford's face disfigured by leprosy
This medical condition affects the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside the brain and the spinal cord). There are also cases of leprosy affecting the eyes and the thin tissue lining inside the nose.
Pale-colored disfiguring skin sores, lumps or bumps (that persist for weeks or months) are the main symptoms of leprosy. Damage to nerves results in muscle weakness and loss of sensation in the affected area. Affected person may suffer from hair loss (including eyebrows and eyelashes).
Symptoms usually appear three to five years after contacting leprosy causing bacteria. There are cases of symptoms appearing 20 years of the contact. The time between contact with the bacteria and the appearance of the symptoms is known as incubation period. Long incubation period makes it difficult for the doctor to establish when and where the patient was infected.
Leprosy causing bacteria
If this medical condition is not treated appropriately, it can cause permanent damage to the skin, limbs and eyes. It is known to cause blindness or glaucoma. Face can be disfigured, due to permanent swelling, lumps or bumps.
Erectile dysfunction is another complication of leprosy. It can make the affected person impotent. Leprosy can result in kidney failure. Nerve damage results in the patient not being able to flex the feet. Hands may become claw-like.
Leprosy may cause permanent damage to the inside of the nose. This usually results in nosebleeds and chronic stuffy nose. Nerves in the peripheral nervous system may be permanently damaged. Nerve damage results in numbness. People affected by permanent nerve damage will not feel any pain when the affected area is cut or burnt. Leprosy can cause damage to bones and can damage the upper respiratory tract.
Cranium deformed by leprosy
Diagnosis of leprosy
Leprosy is diagnosed by skin biopsy. The doctor removes a small sample of the skin in the affected area and sends it to a laboratory for examination. Skin smear test may also be performed. Bacteria will not be detected in cases of paucibacillary leprosy. With skin smear test, bacteria can be detected in cases of multibacillary leprosy.
It is definitely possible to cure leprosy. Effective treatment for this medical condition first appeared in the 1940s. The WHO offers free treatment for patients affected by this disease. During the last two decades, more than 14 million leprosy patients have been cured.
Treatment depends on the type of the disease. Infections are treated by antibiotics. Doctors all over the world usually recommend long-term treatment (six months to one year) with two or more antibiotics. This again depends on the severity of the medical condition. However, leprosy antibiotics cannot repair nerve damage.
Anti-inflammatory medicines like prednisone are used to control swelling related to the disease. The skin nodules are treated with thalidomide. This medication suppresses the body’s immune system. Pregnant women should never use this medicine. It causes severe birth defects.
Ayurveda for leprosy
Ayurveda is a system of traditional medicine that is native to India. It has been helping people affected by leprosy for thousands of years. Juice or paste prepared from rhizomes may be applied externally or internally, depending on how it is made. This treatment provides relief to inflammatory joints.
Mixture of Chalmoogra oil and lime juice, in a paste form, is used to eliminate inflammation of the skin and ulcers. Gota Kola (Hydrocotyle) is used in many forms. The extract can be consumed along with tea. It can be applied to the body by soaking a bandage into the liquid form of the herb. It is also available in the form of ointment and powder. They can be used externally in many ways to treat leprous wounds and inflammation. Its herbal form can be consumed with rice.
The rind of the Vibhitake fruit is used in composition of Triphaladi curnam, Triphaladi oil, Dasamularishtam, Parantyadi tailam and Triphaladi ghrtam. They are effective against leprosy.
The seed of the Babchi (Psoralea) plant is used to treat leprosy. It is prepared into a powder, extract, tincture or oil. The same is applied to the affected area. This is found to be effective in providing relief from leprosy symptoms. Mandukaparni is a medicine prepared with the herb Gota Kola. It is used to treat leprosy. It is rich in vitamin B and vitamin C.
Ayurveda is native to India
Fortunately around 95 percent of people are naturally immune to leprosy. People living in endemic areas with poor conditions (that affect the immune system) like contaminated water, inadequate bedding and insufficient diet.
BCG vaccine offers a variable amount of protection against leprosy. This leprosy vaccine is 26 percent to 41 percent effective (based on controlled trials) and about 60% effective (based on observational studies). Two doses work better than one.
It is important to avoid close physical contact with leprosy patients with untreated disease. This is the only way to prevent the disease effectively. Early diagnosis and treatment of people affected by leprosy is the best way to prevent its spread.
If you come across any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is very important to consult a doctor. Leprosy can be cured. Leprosy patient can be a useful member of the society. There is no reason to panic if you are diagnosed with leprosy. However, the medical condition should be treated without delay.
World Leprosy Day
Also known as World Leprosy Eradication Day, the World Leprosy Day is observed on January 30 or its nearest Sunday to enhance public awareness of the disease.
- Leprosy cure is possible if treated without delay.
- Transmission of the disease occurs via droplets from the mouth and the nose.
- Around 95 percent of the people are naturally immune to leprosy.
- Avoid close physical contact with leprosy patients with untreated disease.
- Antibiotics are used to treat leprosy.
- On World Leprosy Day, messages on leprosy awareness is spread through print and other media.
Test your knowledge about leprosy
view quiz statistics