Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. It affects the peripheral nerves and the skin. It does not affect the spinal cord or the brain. Leprosy has a long incubation period, on average 5-7 years, and is the most complex and the chronic of all human bacterial diseases.
Leprosy continues to be a serious challenge in most developing countries, contributing significantly to the physical and social disability of the patients afflicted. It remains a social and medical problem in the majority of Pacific countries. Leprosy is a disease of poverty, and families affected by leprosy find it extremely difficult to get themselves out of that poverty. Long stays in hospital, disability, exclusion, discrimination, lack of access to education and unemployment all contribute to keep them in poverty.
In the 1940s, Dapsone was used to treat leprosy. Since the 1980s, treatment has consisted of a combination of drugs known as Multiple Drug Therapy (MDT). Depending on the severity of their infection, patients receive treatment for periods ranging from 6-12 months. MDT is an effective cure for Leprosy but does not reverse its effects. MDT is provided free throughout the world through the World Health Organisation.
If leprosy is diagnosed and treated early, the patient is likely to recover with no remaining ill effects from the disease. However, due to fear, ignorance and cultural expectations, many cases of leprosy are not diagnosed quickly enough. This can result in permanent nerve damage leaving hands and feet numb and deformed with clawing of the fingers and gradual disintegration of fingers and toes, nerves to the face permanently damaged which can cause blindness, and chronic ulcers on hands and feet which may lead to amputation of the affected limbs.