Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is curable. The social stigma against leprosy patients or lepers is so huge, that patients find it hard to seek treatment. The World Health Organization however, has been providing free leprosy treatment since 1995. While leprosy cases around the world have been dropping since the discovery of drugs for its treatment, the disease is still endemic to more than 90 countries. Consult a doctor immediately if you think you have leprosy because the disease can cause great damage to your body, although it is rarely fatal.
What Causes Leprosy?
The bacterium Mycobacterium leprae is responsible for leprosy. It affects the mucosa and peripheral nerves of the upper respiratory tract. Scientists first discovered the bacterium in 1873, but even now, they still don't completely understand how it's transmitted. Most experts believe that the disease is transmitted from person to person through droplets from the respiratory tract. Half of all leprosy patients, however, have no confirmed contact with infected people. Environmental conditions, the degree of exposure, and the susceptibility of the person may all play a part in the transmission of the bacterium.
People who share the same household with an infected untreated person are eight times in greater danger of getting the disease. Interestingly, the spouse of the patient is least at risk of developing leprosy, since transmission also seems to depend on genetic factors. Blood relatives of the patient are in greater risk of contracting the disease, as well as people who are intimately in contact with the patient for long periods of time.
Leprosy is not a sexually transmitted disease (STD), so you can't get it through sexual intercourse. The disease is also not passed from a mother to an unborn child. Aside from humans, armadillos and primates are the only other carriers of Mycobacterium leprae. Animal to human transmission has been confirmed in a few cases, but it is still extremely rare.
Symptoms of Leprosy
There are two types of leprosy: tuberculoid leprosy or paucibacillary leprosy, and lepromatous leprosy or multibacillary leprosy. It usually takes three to five years before the symptoms of leprosy manifest, although the incubation period ranges from six months to decades. It's important that you recognize leprosy symptoms early so you can immediately begin treatment.
Tuberculoid Leprosy or Paucibacillary Leprosy Symptoms
Tuberculoid leprosy is the milder type of leprosy. Go to your doctor immediately if you notice the following symptoms:
- Red patches of skin on your torso or limbs
- Numbness in the red patches of skin
- Severe pain
- Weak hand and foot muscles
- Stiff and dry skin
- Enlarged nerves around the knees and elbows
- Eye problems that could lead to blindness
- Loss of toes and fingers
Contrary to popular belief, not all leprosy patients lose their toes and fingers. Many of these symptoms can be prevented if the disease is diagnosed and treated early. Some tuberculoid leprosy patients can even heal themselves without treatment. Avoid injuring your toes and fingers if you have leprosy so you can prevent losing them.
Lepromatous Leprosy or Multibacillary Leprosy Symptoms
Lepromatous leprosy is the severe type of the disease. You must act immediately if you notice the following symptoms because the disease can result in debilitating complications.
- Skin rashes on your face, ears, elbows, wrists, buttocks, and knees
- Thinning eyelashes and eyebrows
- Thickening of the skin on your face
- Bloody nose
- Collapsing nose
- Swollen lymph nodes in the armpits and groin
- Testes scarring that could lead to infertility
- Enlargement of the breasts of male patients
- Loss of toes and fingers
Medical Treatment for Leprosy
Gone are the days when leprosy patients are segregated from the community. Today, leprosy can be cured through various antibiotics. Treatment for tuberculoid leprosy typically lasts for a year, while lepromatous leprosy treatment lasts for two years. Aside from the medications that directly address the progression of the disease, doctors also recommend supportive care to treat symptoms and complications.
Multidrug Therapy: Drug Combinations that Cure Leprosy
The primary treatment for leprosy today is called multidrug therapy or MDT. It is provided by the WHO for free in countries with leprosy cases. MDT can prevent disability of the patient if the treatment is started early.
The drug dapsone was first used to treat leprosy, but the bacterium developed resistance to the drug, so this treatment is no longer recommended. MDT is most prescribed to patients because the bacterium can't develop resistance since different antibiotics are combined. The following antibiotics are commonly used in MDT:
- Dapsone: Dapsone is now no longer used alone to treat leprosy, but in combination with other antibiotics. The drug is safe if it's taken in the recommended dosage in the MDT. Patients who are taking dapsone may have cutaneous eruptions, but harmful side effects are rare. Talk to your doctor before taking dapsone because there are people who can't take the drug, such as those who are allergic to sulpha drugs.
- Rifampicin: This drug is typically administered once every month, and no toxic effects have been reported. A single dose of 600 milligrams of rifampicin can kill 99.9% of the bacteria. The killing rate of the drug however, is not increased even if you take more doses. Rifampicin is preferred by medical professionals for leprosy treatment because its high killing rate is very cost effective. The most common side effect of rifampicin is reddish urine.
- Clofazimine: Clofazimine works by binding itself to the bacterium's DNA, inhibiting its growth and gradually killing it. Experts have also found out that the drug has some anti-inflammatory properties, although the exact mechanism is still not clear. Clofazimine is very safe, and patients must take it daily in order for it to be effective. Doctors recommend taking a monthly loading dose of 300 mg to ensure that the right amount of the drug stays in the patient's body. Side effects of the drug include dry, and brownish black skin, although this usually disappears after the treatment is suspended for a few months.
Taking Medications to Cure Leprosy
The dosage and the duration of your medications depends on what type of leprosy you have and other considerations by your doctor. Don't take medications if you're still not sure what type of leprosy you have. The World Health Organization recommends the following treatment methods for the two types of leprosy:
- For tuberculoid leprosy: If you have one to five skin lesions, take dapsone and rifampicin for six months.
- For lepromatous leprosy: If you have more than five skin lesions, take dapsone, clofazimine, and rifampicin for 12 months.
You should see improvements in your condition after only two to three months of treatment. Your doctor may also choose other antibiotics to treat your condition based on your medical history. Antibiotics such as minocycline, levofloxacin, ofloxacin, and clarithromycin are all effective against leprosy. The WHO has clinics for leprosy that provide these drugs in blister packs. Ask your doctor for more information on WHO programs against leprosy, and how you can avail of these medications.
Don't panic if you develop some symptoms of leprosy. The disease shares some symptoms with other less serious diseases. The important thing to do is to immediately consult your doctor to prevent complications.
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