Leprosy - Debunking the Myth
Dr. Vijay George, MBBS, DVD, DNB in Dermatology

India has the highest number of leprosy cases, also known as Hansen's disease, in the world and a recently discovered 4000 year old skeleton from Rajasthan showed traces of the disease - the oldest case yet found. I had the opportunity to work for a couple of years in a mission in India which performed a free medical service for people affected by leprosy. This disease can have devastating effects, if left untreated, causing patients to have a bloated face and deformed fingers and limbs. For some of the people at the mission, the disease had thoroughly ravaged parts of their arms and legs. Seeing the daily suffering of all these patients was quite emotional.

On the first day of work at the mission I was offered a cup of coffee prepared by the inmates. I was about to sip it when I noticed something moving up and down. To my surprise, and I am sure to the surprise of the readers of this article, the object I found in the cup of coffee turned out to be a part of a finger of the worker who prepared the coffee. My mind's eye was caught and then and there I knew I wanted to help make a difference and I decided to pursue dermatology as a full time profession.

Leprosy is one of the oldest recorded diseases known to man and it has been feared throughout human history. But the dreaded disease is also vastly misunderstood. It is not, for instance, highly contagious, nor does it inevitably lead to a loss of fingers or limbs if detected and treated early on. It does not directly cause body parts to fall off on their own. Instead body parts may become disfigured or are lost through auto-amputation. The disease damages nerves and they lose their ability to warn a patient of pain. Therefore, any minor infection or disease goes undetected and untreated. And the longer a patient goes without help, the more severe and irreversible are the consequences. However, leprosy patients can be cured with antibiotic treatment but the social stigma, rejection and isolation can last a lifetime and the psychological effects can ruin lives in a way I had never imagined.

It is my hope that through education, diagnosis and treatment we will be able to significantly reduce the prevalence of leprosy and eliminate this disease as a public health problem.