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World Leprosy Day

  • January 28th is World Leprosy Day! Learn the role of nurses in properly treating leprosy and breaking down stigma for patients.
  • Leprosy is caused by bacteria affecting a patient’s skin, mucus membranes, and nerves, which can result in a variety of symptoms. 
  • Nurses can treat leprosy through antibacterial therapy lasting 6 to 12 months. This therapy is more effective the earlier it is administered.

Mariya Rizwan

Pharm D

January 25, 2024
Simmons University

January 28, 2024 is World Leprosy Day. Let’s talk about it! 

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, affects around 200,000 people all over the globe each year. Previously, it was considered a devastating and highly contagious disease. But now we know it does not spread easily, and if treated on time, it can be cured well. However, if treatment is delayed, it can cripple a person physically and lead to blindness.  

Leprosy is a neglected tropical disease (NTD) that is common in tropical regions having the most common incidence in India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Brazil, and Nigeria.  

In the USA, the incidence of leprosy is very low. However, around the world, approximately 2 million people are permanently disabled because of it.  

Countries that reported more than 1000 cases of leprosy between 2011 to 2015 to the World Health Organization are as follows: 

  • Africa: Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, and the United Republic of Tanzania 
  • Asia: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, and Sri Lanka 
  • Americas: Brazil 

Leprosy is caused by the Mycobacterium Leprae – a bacteria that is mildly transmissible. It affects the skin, eyes, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract, and peripheral nerves. If treated timely, it does not cause many symptoms. If not treated on time, it can result in progressive changes and permanent disabilities. The person affected by leprosy may also have to face discrimination and stigmatization.  

How Does Leprosy Spread? 

Leprosy does not spread from casual interactions such as shaking hands, sitting close to a person or even hugging them. To get leprosy from the infected person, the other person needs to spend a long time with an infected person. However, in 95% of cases, the person is already immune to it. Therefore, the infection does not occur. The transmission also stops when the infected person starts taking antibiotics for it.  

Hansen’s disease is also not transmitted from a pregnant mother to her children and does not spread through sexual contact. Mycobacterium Leprae is a slow-growing bacteria that takes time to cause infection in the human body. Hence knowing about the source of infection becomes difficult.  

In the south of the United States, some armadillos are already infected by Hansen’s disease. Therefore, avoid exposure to them as they can transmit the disease to you. Moreover, the person who remains in direct contact with the person having untreated leprosy can be at risk of getting it.  

What Are the Symptoms of Leprosy?  

Leprosy affects mainly the skin. Moreover, it can also affect nerves and the mucous membranes, especially the warm and moist areas of the body.  

It can cause symptoms such as the following: 

  • Patches of skin discoloration – often a color lighter than the skin color that looks numb and flat in shape 
  • Nodular growths on the skin  
  • Dry, thick, and stiff skin  
  • Ulcers on the feet that are painless 
  • Painless swelling on the face and the earlobes 
  • Loss of eyelashes or eyebrows  

Nerve damage due to leprosy can lead to the following: 

  • Numbness of the affected area of the skin  
  • Paralysis and muscle weakness, most commonly in the hands and feet 
  • Enlarged nerves, mostly those of the sides of the neck and around the elbow and knees 
  • If facial nerves are affected, it can lead to eye damage and blindness 

Leprosy attacks the mucous membrane and can cause nasal stuffiness and nose bleeds.  

Hansen’s disease affects the nerves, leading to loss of sensation in the limbs. Due to this, the person may not notice pain or burns on their numb body parts. Ask the patients to be vigilant and to take care of themselves as they cannot feel pain, and they need to protect themselves from harm.  


Leprosy, if left untreated, can advance, leading to severe symptoms such as the following: 

  • Blindness 
  • Loss of eyebrows  
  • Crippling of hands and feet and paralysis  
  • Nose disfigurement  
  • Nonhealing and chronic painless ulcers on the bottom of the feet 
  • Shortening of toes and fingers  

Other complications may include a burning sensation in the skin, redness or pain around the affected area, and painful or tender nerves.  

How Is Leprosy Treated? 

Previously, leprosy was an incurable disease. Thankfully, it can be treated now with multidrug therapy that consists of three different antibacterial agents: rifampicin, dapsone, and clofazimine. The duration of therapy varies from 6 to 12 months depending on the case, if it is paucibacillary or multibacillary, respectively.  

The multidrug therapy kills the bacteria and helps cure leprosy. If the disease is diagnosed earlier and treatment is started sooner, the disease can be cured with ease.

The Bottom Line

Leprosy, if diagnosed at earlier stages and treated in a timely manner, has a better outlook than if treatment is delayed. It does not spread too easily from one person to another. In the subtropical regions, where it is more prevalent, healthcare providers need to be more mindful of educating the people in an effort to create greater awareness.   

The outlook for people diagnosed with leprosy at advanced stages is quite worse as it can lead to disfigurement and disability. Therefore, treatment should be started promptly to prevent further complications.   

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