Leprosy is an infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. Patients typically present themselves with symptoms affecting the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract – usually in the form of granulomas. It may be contracted through coughing and sneezing, as well as through any form of contact with nasal secretions from an infected individual. The infection is curable, with patients put on drugs such as rifampicin, dapsone and clofazimine. Treatment typically lasts for between 6 and 12 months, depending on the strain of bacteria involved. Currently, India has the most cases of newly diagnosed leprosy, followed by Brazil and Myanmar.
Patients typically present themselves with skin lesions, most notable those of a contrasting dark and light variety. These lesions, if left untreated, can lead to permanent damage – particularly of the limbs, eyes, skin and nerves. As a result of these lesions, patients often report of an impaired ability to sense touch, heat and pain. Muscle weakness, too, is commonly presented, as is numbness – usually from the limbs and extremities of the body.
The following list of symptoms is by no means intended to be exhaustive, but it highlights many of the common symptoms experienced by patients with leprosy:
- Loss of Sensation
- Skin Lesions
- Eye Damage
- Facial Disfigurement
The direct cause of leprosy is infection with Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis.
Other causative factors may, however, conspire in a patient contracting the illness, such as:
- Poor Diet
- Polluted Water
- Transmission through Nasal Secretions
- Genetic Susceptibility
Epidemiologists have determined that patients tend to be more likely to contract leprosy if they have a pre-existing poor diet. They also found that persons lodged next to polluted water are also more likely to catch the infection. Patients may also contract the infection through nasal secretions from an infected person – such as through coughing or sneezing. In addition, geneticists have found that certain individuals are genetically susceptible to leprosy.
Leprosy may be diagnosed through one, or a combination of, the following:
- Detecting loss of sensory function
- Locating granulomatous skin lesions
- Skin Smears
- Undergoing a full blood test
There are two classic signs that a person has leprosy. First, if they demonstrate loss of sensory function – in that they are less sensitive to touch, heat and pressure. Second, if the patient has skin lesions. These skin lesions may be of different shapes and sizes, such as flat, raised or nodular. Often physicians will take a smear of one of these lesions, in order to determine whether the causative organism is M. leprae or M. lepromatosis.
Treatment options for leprosy are far from limited, as the condition is well managed if diagnosed on time. These treatment options include:
- Use of leprostatic medicines
- Use of steroids/NSAIDs to contain reactions
- Surgery, for skin lesions
Leprosy is curable, not least due to the availability of drugs such as rifampicin, clofazimine and dapsone. The type of drug used and the duration of therapy are determined by the extent of the disease as well as what the causative organism happens to be. However, treatment usually lasts for between 6 and 12 months but may last longer. Multidrug therapy is both common and effective – with patients losing their infectious status after about one month of therapy.
Surgery may be performed in cases where neural function has been lost, or limbs have been damaged as a result of the disease.