Leprosy 2013 – The Problem and the Solutions

1/25/13

Leprosy – still a problem? The answer is yes. Every year, an estimated quarter million people worldwide – mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America – are diagnosed with leprosy, a cruel disease that leaves its victims maimed, crippled, disfigured and blind, often with terrible quality of life. Sunday, Jan. 27, is set aside as World Leprosy Day, when we bring attention to this problem.

While the severity of leprosy is reflected all over the globe, it’s an ignored problem in many respects.

This long-term, destructive and debilitating illness has serious consequences in addition to death. Leprosy’s victims often lead lonely and isolated lives, because of the stigma attached to the disease – a stigma that is often affixed to the entire family.

The number of new cases of leprosy has declined in some areas over the past 15 or so years, thanks to a new multi-drug treatment that the World Health Organization is providing at no cost. But barriers to eradication of the disease remain.

One impediment is the lack of reliable diagnostics and the prolonged course of drugs required for cure. Patients frequently neglect the required 6-12 month course of treatments, often because one of the drugs causes severe, stigmatizing skin discoloration during the span of the therapy. And there is no vaccine for leprosy.

So, the most important thing IDRI can contribute is new tools to enable early detection and treatment of infection. This would help avoid stigmatization, as well as progression of the disease.

To enable tools for elimination, IDRI has approached the problem in two different ways.

• First, by developing a fast, easy diagnostic test (the current method is inadequate and lengthy, by clinical and/or microscopic assessment) that has just been registered for use in Brazil with our partners, OrangeLife. Our goal is to diagnose up to a year before signs are visible so treatment can start before nerve damage occurs.

• Second, by developing a vaccine that can immunize people against leprosy, while also providing treatment to those who have been exposed to the disease but are not yet showing symptoms.

I look at 2013 positively. We have better treatments that are getting even better, and we are confronting leprosy in a strong and smart way. And, our partners and funders at American Leprosy Missions are helping shine a spotlight on the need for new solutions to this age-old problem, especially as we approach World Leprosy Day.

We believe in end-to-end solutions to combat global disease. That means early, rapid and inexpensive diagnosis and detection; safe and effective treatment; and well-tolerated, immunogenic and long-term protection. All of these approaches are needed to take on leprosy and end the pain that’s associated with this disease.

Steve Reed is the founder, president and chief scientific officer of Seattle-based IDRI. Follow @

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