Hansen’s Disease, or more commonly known as “leprosy”, is a very old disease that has been around since Biblical times, and often believed to be a curse or punishment for the sinners. It was believed that those afflicted were considered “unclean”, such as the story from the Bible where a leper approached Jesus and begged to be cleansed. Leprosy was considered as an abomination by the old, and lepers were shunned by the society, even by their own friends and families.
As with many things, we fear that which we do not understand. In this case, leprosy may be the most misunderstood of all.
But what really is Hansen’s disease?
The earliest known record of Hansen’s disease or leprosy goes back as early as 2000 BC as evidenced by the skeletal remains found in India and Pakistan. What was suspected to be a case of leprosy was also discussed sometime in 460 BC by Hippocrates. But it was not until 1873 that we had a concrete idea of what leprosy was when a Norwegian Physician named Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen discovered the bacterial cause of leprosy which is mycobacterium leprae. Due to his significant discovery, the disease was eventually named after him.
Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease that mainly affects the skin, eyes, peripheral nerves, and respiratory tract. It causes skin lesions, nerve damage and muscle weakness. If not treated early, the disease can cause severe deformities and permanent disability.
It is believed that the disease causes human body parts to fall off, but it is actually not the case. What really happens is, when an infected person acquires an injury, that person won’t feel anything due to nerve damage. As a result, the wound might not be treated properly and will ultimately lead to infection, or worse, amputation. The patient may also suffer facial paralysis, blindness, and disfigurement of the extremities.
For the longest time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious but recent studies show that it can only spread through frequent and direct exposure to an infected and untreated person. Even then, one must have a very weak immune system in order to acquire the disease. Although it is not yet fully determined, scientists believe that the disease is transmitted through nasal and oral secretions when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is not hereditary nor can be acquired by touch. Moreover, it is believed that a huge number of people are naturally immune to this disease.
Symptoms of leprosy include the appearance of skin lesions that are lighter compared to the skin on the rest of the body, patches of skin that cannot feel any sensation, thickened eyelids, incomplete blinking, numbness in the extremities, enlarged nerves in the elbows and knees, lesions on the soles of the feet, stuffy nose, nosebleeds, and curling of the fingers and thumbs. It is important to seek medical treatment on the first signs of the symptoms to increase the chance of being healed before the nerves get damaged permanently, which is irreversible.
Contrary to popular belief, leprosy is curable. For many years, physicians desperately searched for a cure that would completely eradicate the disease. At first, Chaulmoogra oil was widely used as treatment for leprosy. But since it wasn’t entirely effective, with many patients experiencing relapse after receiving the treatment, the doctors continued their quest for the ultimate cure. That led them to the discovery of what is known today as MDT or Multi-Drug Therapy, a combination of three highly effective drugs: Dapsone, Rifampicin, and Clofazimine. Treatment of leprosy using Multi-Drug Therapy usually lasts for 6-12 months.
Through MDT, the number of leprosy cases in the world has decreased dramatically. As a result, many leper colonies across the globe are no longer in operation, and many patients have returned to their homes after years of isolation.
The World Health Organization and other medical groups are actively battling the spreading of the disease. WHO has even been giving free MDT to leprosy patients since 1995 in their hope of eliminating the disease. Yet despite all the development, we cannot deny that the stigma remains.
The key to putting an end to the stigma against leprosy is to separate the myths from the facts regarding it. The lack of understanding and knowledge about the disease causes people to be afraid of it. So, may we all be the last missing drug that will ultimately put an end to this menacing infirmity. By understanding it more, and reaching out our hand to the people suffering from it, we can finally heal the wounds brought by social discrimination, abandonment, and painful solitude. We can finally bring light to a world where the stigma against leprosy no longer exists.