The first signs of leprosy are pale or reddish patches on the skin. Sometimes a person with leprosy discovers nodules on their skin. It can be difficult to diagnose and The Leprosy Mission works with governments around the world to ensure medical staff know what to look for and how to treat the disease.
If left untreated, leprosy goes on to damage the large nerves in the elbow, wrist, knee and ankle. The resulting damage can lead to loss of sensation in the hands and feet and muscle paralysis, which causes clawed fingers and foot drop. Loss of sensation in the hands and feet means everyday activities are fraught with danger – burns go unrecognised and stones in shoes unnoticed leading to ulcers developing. These can be difficult to heal and become infected, often leading to the shortening of fingers and toes or ultimately, amputation of limbs.
Leprosy can damage nerves in the face causing the eyelid muscles to stop working. The eyes are no longer protected by the blinking mechanism and can become easily damaged, which eventually leads to blindness. Leprosy can also damage the bones of the nose causing it to collapse and flatten, a common facial trait witnessed in people affected by leprosy.
In some countries, largely due to myths and superstitions, there is a great deal of fear associated with leprosy – people diagnosed with the disease can be stigmatised, rejected by their families and communities. They may lose their jobs and end up without a source of income, some lose their homes. Even today leprosy-affected people may end up living as outcasts in leprosy colonies. The Leprosy Mission cares for the whole person – we are a holistic charity, focusing on the physical, social, spiritual and psychological needs of leprosy-affected people.
An effective cure for leprosy has been available since 1982 in the form of multidrug therapy – a combination of three drugs taken daily for six to 12 months. But while treatment halts the progression of this cruel disease, it cannot turn the clock back in terms of disability.
There have been amazing medical breakthroughs that enable us to help people who have been disabled due to leprosy in a variety of ways. A clawed hand or foot-drop can often be restored with surgery and physiotherapy, though they can’t restore feeling. Surgery can also restore eyelid muscles so a person can blink again. To protect insensitive feet and hands, people are encouraged to look after themselves by soaking their feet regularly, oiling their skin to make it softer and checking daily for any wounds. By following these self-care exercises, injury and further disability can be avoided. Customised mobility aids and special protective shoes are also available for people that need them.