Though it has often been overshadowed by other diseases, the ancient scourge of leprosy is still afflicting humanity—but we have all the tools we need to end it, notes Dr. Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, in a new article published by Health Affairs, titled “One Step Closer To Ending Leprosy.”
- The numbers have been broadly positive over the last few decades: the total numbers of individuals living with leprosy has fallen 99% since the 1980s. However, the rate of progress slowed from 2008-2017, with around 200,000 people diagnosed with leprosy every year.
- Now a renewed public health effort is bearing fruit: the number of newly diagnosed individuals fell again to 184,212 in 2018. This suggests that a continuing concerted effort can further reduce the spread of the disease, and possibly even eliminate it.
- The elements of this recent progress include a multi-drug regimen and contact tracing to identify individuals who may have been exposed to leprosy. However, these techniques haven’t been implemented uniformly, especially in high-burden countries concentrated in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
- Fortunately an initiative and study by Novartis shows that multi-drug regimens and contact screening can work even in hard-to-reach locales in low-income regions. Aerts summarizes the approach: “Since 2014, the Novartis Foundation, which I lead, and partners have been working with Ministries of Health to implement this approach in eight countries, Brazil, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Myanmar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka. More than 170,000 contacts of patients have been screened, and more than 150,000 have received preventive treatment.”
- Aerts also gives an overview of the results: “The results consistently show an increase in the number of cases for the first years of the programs followed by a steep decline—demonstrating increased identification of cases that were previously going undetected and, which once identified, then led to treatment and a knock-on effect of reducing the overall number of people contracting leprosy.”
Big picture: “This means that in countries with high rates of leprosy, the introduction of routine contact tracing and issuing of preventive treatment could reduce the number of people developing leprosy annually by 50 percent in five years and by 90 percent in 25 years.”