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How Leprosy Works


Diagnosing and Treating Leprosy
The Kalaupapa peninsula of the Hawaiian island of Molokai was turned into the first leprosy colony in 1866.
The Kalaupapa peninsula of the Hawaiian island of Molokai was turned into the first leprosy colony in 1866.
Liysa Liysa/Getty Images

Leprosy infections are slow-moving, and with early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, leprosy is not a death sentence.

Skin lesions and the loss of sensation are telltale early signs of the infection, and are usually enough for a health professional to make a diagnosis, but specific tests will determine for sure. The two primary tests are skin lesion biopsies and skin scraping. All leprosy infections are caused by M. Leprae, but how it appears (its expression) and how severe it is varies from person to person.

There are two types of leprosy, paucibacillary and multibacilly. Paucibacillary (PB) leprosy expresses itself with only one to five skin lesions, and skin and nerve biopsies conducted during diagnosis all come back negative for M. Laprae bacilli. On the other side of the leprosy spectrum is multibacillary (MB) leprosy, characterized by more than five skin lesions and a positive result for M. Laprae bacilli in the skin and nerves.

To makes things a little more complicated, leprosy is also categorized by its level of severity; this is called the Ridley-Jopling classification. The classifications, listed from minor to most severe, include: indeterminate leprosy, tuberculoid leprosy, borderline tuberculoid leprosy, mid-borderline leprosy, borderline lepromatous leprosy and lepromatous leprosy.

All forms of the infection are treatable, and have been since the 1940s. The first treatments against leprosy were injections of promin (a sulfone medication, which means it's made from organic sulfur compounds), discovered effective in 1941. In the 1950s, dapsone (an antibacterial, and also a sulfone medication) became the go-to cure, and is still used today. But as M. Laprae began to develop resistance to these medications, other therapies were considered, and in the 1960s, clofazimine (an antimycobacterial), and rifampicin (an antibiotic) were introduced as leprosy treatments.

The most effective treatment, used with great success against leprosy since 1981, is actually not just one thing, but rather a multidrug therapy (MDT) that combines clofazimine, dapsone and rifampicin. Paucibacillary infections require a six-month combination (dapsone and rifampicin) therapy treatment to clear the infection. Multibacillary leprosy infections, the most severe, require the strongest therapy: a combination of all three medications taken over the course of a year. A mild infection with just a single lesion, may require only a single dose of antibiotics that combines rifampicin, ofloxacin and minocyclin [source: WHO]. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides these treatments free to all leprosy patients, and once treatment has begun the infection is no longer contagious.

Even with treatment, there can be long-term complications of the infection, depending how long the infection was allowed to progress before treatment began as well as the overall severity of the disease. Patients may have permanent disabilities including nerve damage and loss of sensation and pain, specifically in the arms and legs, as well as long-term muscle weakness. Sometimes leprosy causes disfigurement. Victims aren't missing toes because they fell off (give your imagination a rest), but because the body is re-absorbing the cartilage in those toes (and fingers, hands and feet, and nose). Complications resulting from nerve damage may sometimes require surgery to treat the physical effects resulting sensory loss; for example, if you can't feel your foot, you may frequently injure it — this can also sometimes lead to loss of fingers and toes. Surgeries may also relieve and repair a claw hand, and in some cases infected body parts may need to be amputated.