Hundreds of cases diagnosed anually despite major medical advances
Despite its virtual eradication from some developed corners of the world and association with ancient and pre-industrial societies, leprosy remains a significant health problem in Argentina, with hundreds of new cases reported every year.
Senior dermatologist at Buenos Aires City’s Ramos Mejía and leprosy expert Dr Jorge Tiscornia said that though the progress made against the disease had been remarkable during the second half of the twentieth century, the myths and dangers posed by the disease continued to be a serious problem in the country and across Latin America.
Tiscornia spoke to the Herald at the start of the National Campaign for Education and Prevention of Leprosy that runs in the first week of October.
“This was a disease that touched all corners of the globe historically, and in the past those suffering from leprosy were needlessly put away in colonies. It’s been a huge leap forward in last 70 years,” he said, adding that despite such progress, the problem remained.
“One problem with leprosy is that it’s a disease that can be hard to recognise straight away. There have been approximately 300 cases in Argentina since the new year. We are also treating patients from Paraguay that itself has a serious leprosy problem,” he added.
Part of the difficulty in seeking to curtail and eventually eradicate leprosy — as the World Health Organization (WHO) had hoped to achieve by the year 2000 — is the nature of its early development.
Early symptoms include faint blemishes on the skin and a numbness, rather than pain, in the affected areas. Consequently, many people suffering in the early stages of the disease when it is most treatable miss or dismiss the symptoms as unimportant.
“A common symptom is losing sensation in the skin on your hands, arms or elsewhere, and often people do not think much of it and may have contracted the disease without realizing,” Tiscornia said.
Further, according to the WHO leprosy disproportionately affects communities blighted by poverty with limited access to basic health necessities like sanitation or regular check-ups.
“Under-served and marginalized communities (are) most at risk from leprosy, often the poorest of the poor,” the WHO said.
This is true globally, where the three heavily populated countries with the most leprosy cases — India, Indonesia and Brazil — are all affected by endemic and widespread poverty.
It is also reflected in Argentina, where according to the Argentine Dermatology Society (SAD), the highest occurrence of new leprosy cases were in the Northern provinces of Formosa and Chaco, two of the poorest regions in the country.
Stigma and discrimination
One of the biggest obstacles in tackling the disease concerns the widespread misinformation about the causes, risks and of leprosy. Contrary to popular myths surrounding the disease, influenced by its historically taboo reputation, it is in fact extremely difficult to contract leprosy via contagion.
According to the SAD, in the majority of cases over three years of regular close contact with the disease is necessary before one is at risk of contracting it directly from someone already suffering, and the antibiotic drugs used to combat the disease today can cure anyone who contracts it within a year. However, popular misconceptions and discrimination remain.
“There’s a lot of damaging stigma and prejudice surrounding the disease,” Tiscornia told the Herald. “People still believe falsely that it’s incredibly contagious and shun it. And those suffering from leprosy are affected badly by the stigma.”
The aim of the awareness week it has run for 16 years is to challenge the stigma and make sure people do not ignore the early symptoms.