Leprosy: the disease that hasn't died
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, which multiplies slowly and can take five to ten years to show its first signs. Its pathology mainly affects the peripheral nerves and is associated with skin lesions such as whitish or reddish spots, dryness and loss of sensitivity. Late diagnosis can leave serious sequelae, especially physical disability with deformities in hands and feet. It can also lead to blindness.
Despite being an old disease, which goes back to biblical times, leprosy is currently active and still causes serious effects in the Brazilian population, which is in the second highest position of the world ranking of registered cases, only behind India. Every year, almost 30 thousand Brazilians receive the diagnosis of leprosy. Until 1995, Hansen’s disease was known as leprosy. The law in Brazil changed the official terminology, but it did not make a significant change in the challenging situations or in the prejudices faced by patients with the disease.
According to data from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2017, 26,875 new cases were detected in Brazil. This number represents more than 93% of the cases recorded in Latin American countries. In 2016 there were 25,218 registered cases. In 2018, 28,660 cases were registered. This scenario is aggravated by the difficulty in diagnosis which may be responsible for the late treatment of cases. Not many doctors are prepared to deal with it, which signals a sensitive underreporting of cases. Prejudice and lack of information cause patients to hide the disease and live in social isolation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) placed leprosy on the list of neglected diseases, characterized by being infectious pathologies that affect mainly those populations who live in extreme poverty. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), neglected diseases are restricted to tropical and subtropical regions with untreated water, poor housing conditions and inadequate hygiene and sanitation.
Leprosy is contagious and airborne, yet 90% of the population is immune. That is to say, the disease only manifests itself in 10% of the contaminated population. The ills of the disease are manifested in those who have genetic predisposition and have already been infected by the bacterium.
Leprosy has a cure and its treatment is free of charge under the Brazilian Unified Health System (SUS), which offers antibiotics. The treatment takes at least six months, but it can last for years, depending on the type of disease.