It is a disease that has been around for a very long time – it is an ancient disease. All sorts of myths were spun in our traditional settings concerning the disease. And these myths made people afraid of people who had the disease. In ancient times, leprosy was thought to be a curse or punishment from the gods. So, the people were ostracised from society and were sometimes sent for forgiveness and treatment by holy men and priests. Another reason people who had leprosy were ostracised from society in some places was because of how much the disease disfigures those who suffer from it. Also, it was observed that those who had contact with the infected person(s) could later get the disease, while those who never had contact with the lepers were never infected; and so, the lepers were banned from some villages and communities. Unfortunately, in the world today, people who have leprosy are still banned and ostracised from some society in some villages. So, people who had leprosy were required to ring a bell as they moved in some places; this was so that people could run away or avoid them. Because they were usually banned, the lepers usually lived together in isolated leper colonies. They were sometimes cared for by priests, monks, etc.
Later, the cause of the disease was discovered by a man called Armauer Hansen – a doctor in Norway. This is why the disease is also called Hansen’s disease – named after him. So, those who now know the cause of the disease no longer believe the myths. However, certain people in rural areas do not know the cause of the disease, and so they still believe the myths.
Sometime in the past, it was thought to be hereditary because the disease affected family members. When in reality the main reason it affected family members was the repeated, frequent and close exposure to the untreated leprous person in the family over a long period of time.
This disease particularly affects the skin, upper respiratory tract, the nerves of the arms and legs, and the inner lining of the nostrils. And so, it causes weakness of the muscles, skin sores and damage to the nerves. It also affects the eyes, kidneys and male reproductive tract. It can cause disability and severe disfigurement if it is not treated early.
Leprosy is devastating when it gets to the advanced stage because of the disfigurement and disability associated with it, as a result of the damage it causes to different parts of the body.
The outcome of being infected with leprosy depends on different factors, such as – how early in the disease process it is diagnosed, and how early treatment is started. If there is late diagnosis and commencement of treatment, then the disease will have a poor outcome. However, if the diagnosis and commencement of treatment are done early, then the disease will have a fair or relatively good outcome.
When treatment is started early in the disease process, spread of the disease is stopped, damage to different parts of the body and grave health complications are also prevented.
Leprosy is seen in many countries, especially in tropical and subtropical countries; although it is not as common as it once was.
Since 1995, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has distributed the drugs used to treat leprosy for free all over the world.