Leprosy

By: Sushma Santhana

What causes leprosy?

Leprosy is caused by a small bacterium called Myobacterium Leprae. The bacteria enters your body through an opening, such as your mouth or cuts. Then, if it isn't killed, goes through your body to cooler parts, like your fingers and toes, and will start to multiply.

How is leprosy transmitted?

Leprosy is spread when people come in contact with the bacteria. This can happen when you get coughed or sneezed on from an untreated patient or by touching open wounds. The problem is, leprosy can take years to show signs of, but the bacteria can still just sit in you multiplying or on your clothes and skin for days. Because of this, it's hard to pinpoint how you could have gotten the disease and if you helped spread it around.

What are the symptoms associated with leprosy?

Leprosy has a wide range of symptoms affecting all parts of your body. It affects one of the most important organs in your body, the brain, by damaging your nerves. The most common ones include numbness and large sores, sometimes called lesions, on your body. The numbness on your body, which is usually on hands and feet, makes you not feel any potential injuries on those areas. Not knowing about the injuries can lead to infections and even the need for amputations. Leprosy can also cause some hair loss, a chronic stuffy nose, voice changes, and tissue loss. Sometimes, the disease can cause damage to motor nerves, resulting in not being able to close your eyes, which eventually leads to blindness. The damage to motor nerves can leave your hands and feet paralyzed and left in a claw-like position. A common myth about leprosy is that it makes your body parts fall off and kills you, but these aren't true. Leprosy itself mostly doesn't kill you, but with leprosy comes a weakened immune system, and this can make it easy for deadlier diseases to enter your body. Leprosy doesn't make body parts fall off either. Body parts can rot away from infection, but they don't just break off. All of these symptoms can take twenty years to show after contact with the bacteria, so it's important to know the signs when you first see them.

What are the different types of leprosy and what are some similar diseases?

There are three types of leprosy. The first type is called paucibacillary, and it is the most common type of leprosy. The second type is called multibacillary. This type is less common, but it's more severe and contagious. The final type is called borderline, and this is when a patient is in the middle between the two main types. There are other diseases that are similar to leprosy such as Black Death, more commonly associated as the Bubonic Plague. Both were an issue around the same time and were largely spread by poor living conditions.

How is leprosy affecting people around the world?

While not much of a problem in the U.S, leprosy is still affecting many lives around the world. 90 percent of the cases are found in Madagascar, Mozambique, Burma, Nepal, India, and Brazil. These places don't have access to the drugs. In African countries, civil wars, AIDS, and refugee camps are all in the way of eradicating the disease. People in India with leprosy are treated badly, they are placing in the untouchable class, and this causes the patients to be afraid of becoming public about their condition so they can be treated.
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The History of Leprosy

It is unknown when leprosy first began. There have been signs of it in Ancient Indian and Chinese writings and in the mummies of the Ancient Egyptians, but an exact place or time period has not been clearly identified. Back then, everybody believed that leprosy was a punishment from God for doing something bad in a past life. Because of this belief, patients were treated as outcasts. At first, people with leprosy had to wear a cape with a yellow cross on it, telling everybody they had leprosy, and carry around a bell to warn the approaching people of their condition. As leprosy continued to last, leper houses were built. These houses would give patients a place to live out their lives until they were better, but most died there. An estimated 19,000 leper houses were built around the world to keep the infected people isolated. In Louisiana in 1758, the first U.S leprosy case was confirmed. By now, people believed the disease was inherited from previous family members, but leper houses were being built. The most famous one, Kalaupapa was built in Hawaii to keep infected Americans. Kalaupapa is now a historical park and a home to some leprosy patients who choose to stay there. Though the history of leprosy may seem harsh, there were some people who tried to see the good in things. Father Damien, a man who wanted to help suffering people with leprosy, decided to improve the living conditions of the leper houses. He went to leper houses around the world and made them a better place to live. Unfortunately, Father Damien contracted leprosy and died from it after years of helping lives. After his death, more people were convinced leprosy was highly contagious. It wasn't until 1873 that G. H. Armaur Hansen discovered the real cause of leprosy, bacteria. Because of his breakthrough discovery, leprosy was renamed Hansen's Disease, after him. Now people knew the real cause of leprosy, and less people were being isolated, but some were still suffering. Because of such a hateful history, many people who have leprosy now are too afraid to seek treatment to get better because they're afraid of the hate and discrimination they might receive.

Statistics

Leprosy is said to be one of the greatest success stories in the disease world. In the 1980s, there were six million cases of leprosy, and those were just the known ones. By the 1990s, that number had dropped half a million, and today, that number has gone down by about five million, leaving the number of cases per year at only 500,000. Only about 100 of these yearly cases are found in the U.S. This number is still going down, and at the rate it is dropping, leprosy could be eradicated sooner than you think.
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Prevention

About 95 percent of humans on Earth have a natural immunity to leprosy, meaning even if the bacteria gets inside of you, you will not contract the disease, and you may never even know the bacteria was inside of you. Unfortunately, even if the bacteria isn't affecting you, you could pass it on to someone who might not have the immunity to it, and they would have to suffer. If you are part of the unlucky five percent, you can still get sick, but with less and less people around to spread it, it's unlikely to catch it, especially if you live in the U.S. If you're in a high risk country, such as India or Brazil, be careful if you're in an area with poor sanitation, because this can help the bacteria spread even more.

Treatment and Cure

Until the discovery of chaulmoogra oil, made from the nut of a kalaw tree, there was nothing to help people with leprosy. Chaulmoogra was painful and gave people large sores, even though it did get rid of the bacteria in your body. Luckily, people are not using this anymore. The best treatment for now is a multi-drug treatment using the drugs dapson, rifampicin, and clofazimine. This works much better than the oil, and once you take your first dose of treatment, you are no longer contagious. The treatment can last any where between six months and a year. For now, this is the only way to treat leprosy patients. A vaccination is working to be made to further prevent people from contracting leprosy, but so far it hasn't been created. Once you're free from leprosy, the scars and injuries are still there. For the most part, they would stay, but if you choose to, you could have reconstructive surgery. There are a lot of organizations to help leprosy patients such as WHO (World Health Organization), SAPEL (Special Actions Project for the Elimination of Leprosy), and LEPRA (Leprosy Relief Association). They all are working hard to better the lives of people with leprosy and eliminate it once and for all. Once cured, leprosy patients are being taught to live normal lives by giving them rehabilitation classes that teach them how to do things like, cook, sew, and make pottery. By learning these skills, they can go back to the lives they had before they contracted leprosy, and their suffering can be over.

Bibliography

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