World Leprosy Day: what should you know about this disease?

World Leprosy Day is celebrated on January 31, 2021. This is an infectious disease that, today, can be cured after a few months of treatment.

Due to its contagious nature and the characteristic dermatological lesions that characterize it, affected patients have been rejected in almost all societies for centuries.

The coordinated efforts of several organizations seek to disseminate more information about the disease with the aim of improving the quality of life of those affected.

What is leprosy?

Leprosy is a highly contagious disease that carries some deformities.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is an infectious disease, caused in most cases by a microorganism called Mycobacterium leprae. In 2008 a new causal agent was discovered: Mycobacterium lepromatosis.

The main clinical manifestations are dermatological and lead to some deformities that, for centuries, have caused patients to be stigmatized.

Because these bacteria reproduce very slowly, symptoms of the disease can appear even years after infection has occurred.

Leprosy can be spread through close contact with an infected patient, another reason why the sick were rejected from a social point of view for several centuries.

Despite the fact that the disease was considered endemic in many countries, it was possible to reduce the cases considerably worldwide due to the development of multiple drugs and mass prevention strategies.

Many of these efforts were coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), an entity that even today continues to provide treatment to the most disadvantaged.

Clinical manifestations

The skin lesions of Hansen's disease are characterized by being very varied. Usually, There may be flat spots larger than 1 centimeter in diameter and reddish in color. Also, large nodules are usually present, responsible for most of the deformations that affect patients.

Something very characteristic of the disease, and that in many cases can lead to diagnosis, is that in the area covered by skin lesions there may be lack of sensitivity. This is because the causative bacteria are capable of damaging peripheral nerves, especially the cells that produce their natural covering, called Schwann cells.

Find out more: 10 types and causes of skin rashes

Why is World Leprosy Day celebrated?

Although the disease has been controlled, it has not been fully eradicated. Cases still appear every year, especially in developing countries, whose public health system is often fragile.

In order to remember its importance, in addition to raising awareness about the need to eradicate discrimination against patients who suffer from it, it was decided in 1953 to establish the World Day Against Leprosy. This is celebrated on the last Sunday of every January, and in the year 2021 it corresponds to the 31st.

It has the support of the WHO and on its website there is a special section in which all the important activities related to this disease are compiled. Furthermore, this organization has set a set of strategies to achieve the ultimate goal of eradicating the disease. Some of them are the following:

  1. Improve access to polychemotherapy (PQT).
  2. Encourage patients to complete the treatment, since it can last up to two years.
  3. Carry out adequate promotion and education about the disease, including aspects of prevention, early detection and treatment.
  4. Optimize the processes of registration and obtaining epidemiological data.
  5. Carry out activities constantly to achieve the main objectives.

Leprosy in figures

The incidence of leprosy is low; however, it is not an eradicated disease.

Despite the effective strategies of both international organizations and local governments, cases of this disease are still diagnosed. Below, you can see the most important statistics in Spain and the rest of the world.

In Spain

Although the incidence of Hansen's disease in the country is very low, it has not yet been eradicated. Given its characteristics, it is a mandatory notification condition in all autonomous communities. According to a publication from the National Center for Epidemiology, In the period 2017-2018, a total of 15 cases were identified.

It was determined that most of the patients acquired the infection in other countries. These were, for example, Bolivia, Brazil, Mali, Paraguay, Turkey and Colombia. Of the total number of patients, the majority were men, and the most frequent age group was between 25 and 44 years old.

In the world

According to a WHO publication, the incidence of leprosy cases in 2017 was 210,671 worldwide. With a large majority, the Asian continent (especially the Southeast) was the region that contributed the most cases to the statistics.

India was the country with the most cases during that period of time and, in fact, some historical records suggest that it was in this region that the disease originated thousands of years ago. In America, Brazil was the most affected country, with 26,875 new cases.

Find out more: Tips to prevent skin diseases

Leprosy in ancient times

One of the main reasons to celebrate World Leprosy Day is the enormous importance that Hansen's disease has had over the millennia. It is common to refer to it as the most common pathology in the history of mankind, because it appeared in the first records on human health.

The first cases date back to about 2,000 years BC. Some theories suggest that the disease originated in India and some affected patients (still in the incubation period) traveled to Egypt on the famous voyages of Alexander the Great. It is possible that from these migration processes, the disease has spread throughout the world.

Furthermore, there are quite a few biblical records that refer to "the lepers," in most cases with a negative context that highlights the great discrimination. Most of these patients were sentenced to social isolation, even in special centers for their confinement.

A day to remember

World Leprosy Day has great importance, not only for patients, but for the people around them. For this reason, take note and remember that it is celebrated on the last Sunday in January.

Despite its low incidence, from this space We call on you to understand and disseminate all activities related to this celebration. As some of the WHO staff would say, "a world without leprosy is within our grasp."