Leprosy lurking in the shadows


With an incubation period which could last up to 20 years after contact with a patient with leprosy, doctors of the Anti-Leprosy Campaign (ALC) lamented that there was a possibility of a spread with reduction in the number of detections.

Consultant Community Physician, Dr. Dilini Wijesekara yesterday 9 said, prior to 2019, an average of 2,000 patients with leprosy had been detected per year. In 2019, a total of 1,660 leprosy patients were diagnosed. She lamented that 181 of them had been child cases (10.9 per cent of patients below 14 years).

She said, 40 per cent of the total cases had been from the Western Province, while the remaining cases that were detected that year were from the Eastern, Southern, and North Western Provinces. 

Last year, the number of cases detected diminished further to 1,026 owing to the Covid-19 outbreak in the country and in addition to the other prevailing issues with regard to the disease which affects the peripheral nervous system (PNS) which contributes to the visible deformities which occur in patients during the advanced stages of the disease, she said.  

The Consultant Community Physician said only 398 cases of leprosy had been detected from January till the beginning of the second week of August this year. She said 47 of the cases diagnosed were children, 84 cases from the total were from the Batticaloa District, while the remaining patients were from Gampaha (46), Kalutara (35), Colombo (23), and Kegalle (45).

Responding to queries, Dr. Wijesekara said lack of social awareness that leprosy is curable if detected early and stigma were two of the main causes for people with symptoms to avoid seeking medical attention. She said community and health staff were responsible for the misdiagnosis of leprosy. 

If a person develops hypopigmented, copper coloured or red coloured patches, they should go to a dermatologist or the Outpatient Department and seek assistance from a qualified doctor. Dr. Wijesekara explained that 60 per cent of patients were infected with “multibacillary” leprosy which was infectious. However, what should be remembered is that only long-term contact with a patient spreads the disease. The infectivity of multibacillary leprosy patients wean off two to three days after commencing treatment, she said

ALC Director, Dr. Prasad Ranaweera, when contacted said, leprosy was a neglected tropical disease and that the Campaign hoped to work towards disease elimination by creating wide-scale awareness, encouraging people with symptoms to seek early medical attention. People tend to neglect “pale patches” that develop on their skin, leading to a delay in seeking medical attention. He said the ALC would initiate a social marketing programme titled ‘Leprosy Initiative for Elimination’ (LIFE)Sri Lanka this month to create awareness and encourage early detection.     

By Dilanthi Jayamanne