Leprosy: The World's Oldest Disease

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by an acid-fast bacillus (AFB) Mycobacterium leprae, related to the tubercle bacillus. It affects the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, nerves, bones, and  muscles  causing severe deformities. Its mode of transmission is not clearly defined.

The WHO has estimated that 12 to 20 million people worldwide have leprosy (Hansen's disease). The majority are in India, China and Africa. India alone has about 4 million patients. 

It is the "World's Oldest Disease".  According to the Holy Bible, the laws God gave to Moses also contained health laws concerning leprosy. Perhaps, at that time it had a broad meaning, and also included some other skin diseases. These laws were not concerned with treating the disease, but with isolating the infected person so that others in the community are saved of the malady. Leprosy rendered the person unclean, and the cleansing ceremony lasted 8 days. The priest then sprinkled the person with bird's blood seven times to cleanse the person, after which the person was washed and shaved. Then he returned to the community after washing for another 7 days during which he had to offer certain prescribed sacrifices. Thus, there have been attempts to tackle this disease even in ancient times.  

Present day professional jargon of terms like elimination, eradication, prevalence, and detection hardly concern the leprosy patient as such. Factors to be tackled at the core are bad sanitation and living conditions, ignorance, lack of awareness, and the stigma attached to the disease. Partly the stigma can be minimised by using the name Hansen's disease instead of leprosy. 

To have a Hansen's disease-free India what is needed is patient education, socio-economic upliftment, proper treatment, and public awareness. Today with the development of effective chemotherapy, most cases can be managed outside the hospitals. 


More by :  Dr. Frank S. K. Barar

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