Do people still get leprosy

Leprosy is still rampant in some countries

Leper - that is the literal translation of the Greek word "lepros". Leprosy patients were and still are considered lepers. The disease is much less contagious than most other infectious diseases. Even so, she's still not defeated. 214,000 people were newly infected in 2014. Also because far too little is being done about it in some countries, say experts.

Leprosy is an ancient disease. The pathogen Mycobacterium leprae was found in Egyptian mummies, and the disease also occurs in the Bible. But it wasn't until 1873 that the Norwegian doctor Armauer Hansen recognized the bacteria behind the disease. Those affected initially get spots on the skin that feel numb. Depending on the course, the nerves gradually die off, and patients then no longer feel any pain.

In the most severe form, lepromatous leprosy, the whole body is covered with spots and lumps at some point, ulcers form everywhere, which often become inflamed, also because they are not noticed by the patient. If the disease is not treated, patients can die from these secondary infections.

When the disease was still raging in Germany, those affected were isolated in more than 1,000 leper houses - not because the disease was so contagious, but because the people looked terrifying. Touching lepers was considered fatal. It was believed that they were punished by God with the ulcers.

The leprosy riddle

Because leprosy is actually only very weakly contagious, the disease has hardly occurred in Europe since the 18th century. It is probably transmitted via droplet infection. That is why leprosy is still rampant in places where the hygienic conditions are poor: 125,785 new people fell ill in India in 2014, which is the most severely affected country. Followed by Brazil, where 30,000 new cases are registered each year.

However, these are only the official figures, the number of unreported cases is higher, says leprosy expert Reinaldo Bechler from the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Aid. It used to be called the Organization of the German Leper Aid Organization, which is why it is still abbreviated to DAHW today.

Critics say leprosy is a disease of the poor that is not well researched. Doctors are still puzzling over exactly how it is transmitted and why nine out of ten people are resistant to the pathogen. “Many people probably carry it on without ever falling ill, but they can infect others,” says DAHW spokesman Jochen Hövekenmeier. If you knew more about the disease, new infections could be avoided, he says. Just like with better prevention.

“Nobody wants to talk about it,” says Bechler, criticizing the fact that, despite tens of thousands of new cases, there are not enough efforts in Brazil to eradicate leprosy. Doctors are not adequately trained, and many do not even recognize the disease. And: The active search for newly ill people is prohibited. In Brazil, DAHW experts are not allowed to drive into the country themselves and actively look for people with leprosy.

A second thalidomide scandal

It would help those affected because leprosy can be cured at an early stage. In Brazil, the disease is treated with thalidomide, the active ingredient in Contergan - the sleeping pill that causes severe disabilities in unborn children. An Israeli doctor had found out in the 1960s that the drug helps with leprosy.