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Leprosy, ancient disease and stuff of legends and misconceptions, persists in human population from Biblical time. Even now, when the treatment for this infection is available, it affects thousands of people worldwide.

Most people think that leprosy is a thing of the past. Well, not quite. It is still around and still affects lots of people. Most cases of leprosy these days happen in the developing world, but even in Europe the disease still occurs. Last remaining leprosorium on European continent is located in Romania.

Leprosy is a chronic bacterial infection causing long-term health effects in the humans.

It is also known as Hansen’s disease, named after the physician Gerhard A. Hansen who discovered the causative bacterium in 1873. Leprosy is a very ancient disease. It is mentioned in the Bible and Vedas and was surrounded by various myths. Many believed that this is a curse from God to punish people for immoral behavior, and that it is incurable and so contagious that the infected persons should be detached from normal social life. But with the progress of science all these legends have been disproved.

Biological nature of the disease

The pathogen behind the leprosy infection is bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. This is an aerobic (oxygen requiring) pathogen showing slow growth with high incubation time. It gets transmitted through nasal droplets.

Skin contact does not cause transmission, contrary to commonly held opinion.

Upon infection, the bacteria primarily attack skin and later the peripheral nervous system and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract.

Manifestations of leprosy

Leprosy takes 3 to 5 years and sometimes even 20 years to manifest symptoms post infection. It is a granulomatous disease where affected tissues are characterized by inflamed granulation. Therefore, on the onset it affects the skin forming lesions, nodules, lumps and sores commonly known as plaques.

These plaques, if left untreated, cause permanent damage to the skin, limb, nose and also nerves of brain and spinal cord.

Nerve damage leads to loss of sensation and muscle weakness. In many cases, loss of fingers, toes and nose tips are associated with leprosy. This is not the result of leprosy, however. Rather, this is caused by secondary infections occurred due to the leprosy-compromised immune system.

Other complications related to this disease include blindness or glaucoma, nosebleeds and a chronic, stuffy nose, face dis-figuration that includes lumps, permanent swellings and bump, erectile dysfunction and infertility in men, kidney failure.

Leprosy comes with many symptoms and forms

According to the World’s Health Organization, leprosy is subdivided into two major categories, paucibacillary and multibacillary. This classification is based on the proliferation rate of the bacteria.

In paucibacillary form, the bacteria grow in small numbers as compared to the multibacillary form. Depending on the symptoms, doctors distinguish six types of leprosy. They differ in particular manifestation and severity.

Continue reading after recommendations

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  • Saonere JA. (Nov 2011) Leprosy: An overview. J. Infect. Dis. Immun. 3: 233-243
  • Duthie MS, Gillis TP and Reed SG. (Nov 2011) Advances and hurdles on the way toward a leprosy vaccine. Hum. Vaccin. 7: 1172-1183
  • Girão RJ, Soares NL, Pinheiro JV, Oliveira GD, de Carvalho SM, de Abreu LC, Valenti VE and Fonseca FL. (Aug 2013) Leprosy treatment dropout: a sistematic review. Int. Arch. Med. 6: 34.
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