Here’s everything you need to know about Hansen’s Disease, a.k.a. Leprosy, in time for World Leprosy Day on 25th January (also observed on 30th January in India).
What is leprosy?
Leprosy – also known as Hansen’s Disease – is a disease caused by a bacteria that affects the skin and nerves of the limbs, face and even the eyes, gradually killing sensation in the affected area. So, for instance, if an affected person were to touch a hot stove unawares, they would not realise that they have burned their hand. The wound caused by this accident would most probably get infected over time and lead to more complications like permanent deformities and related disabilities.
Is it contagious?
Leprosy is not as infectious as a cold but can be caught in the same manner. If there is repeated contact with an infected person, through droplets emitted from the nose or mouth, leprosy can be transmitted to you. It incubates for up to 5 years and may take up to 20 years to show symptoms.
Is it curable?
Yes! Once detected, it can be treated and cured. Early detection works best to avoid complications such as infections and deformities. So if you live in an endemic area, get a check-up.
Is leprosy found in India?
Unfortunately, yes. Leprosy in India can be traced back to as far as 2000 BC. Today, India accounts for 54% of leprosy cases in the world. A saddening 10% of these cases are seen among children. The disease occurs the most in poverty-stricken areas.
What are the symptoms of the disease?
Pale patches of skin are the earliest visible signs of leprosy. Because they don’t itch, people often don’t get them checked. These patches then develop into bumps and sores, with a gradual numbing of the area, which then leads to deformities and worse.
What are the effects of leprosy?
Besides the physiological effects, possible deformities and resulting disabilities, there are psychological effects to leprosy that need to be dealt with as well. Although the disease is curable and not half as infectious as the common cold, the social stigma attached to it can be debilitating for an individual. Those having the disease are often outcast from society and end up leading lonely, severely marginalised lives.
Shockingly, discrimination against leprosy is ingrained not just in the Indian psyche but within our legal system as well. Although the Leprosy Act of 1898 was made to protect those affected by the disease, discrimination still runs rife through our legal system. Some states have laws preventing those with leprosy from getting a driver’s license, and some hold the discovery or contracting of leprosy as legal grounds for divorce. Things like travelling by train are also off limits for leprosy patients in some states.
What can we do?
Imagine how difficult it must be for those dealing with leprosy to also face discrimination in daily life. Imagine having an amputated foot, using crutches and not being allowed to use the local train. Imagine being turned away from shops and restaurants and asked to vacate public spaces just because you have a visible disease. Imagine being treated as an untouchable.
In the 21st century, it is shameful that this situation actually exists. We need to eradicate the situation and the disease. One way to do this is to help raise awareness about the disease. Another way to do this is to raise funds to help those dealing with leprosy.
You can be the change our society needs by starting a campaign like Raja did for Madurai Health and Leprosy Relief Centre. Or for Damien Foundation, an NGO that works to eradicate leprosy and tuberculosis.