Leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease) is caused by bacteria which attack nerves in the extremities of the body like your hands, feet and face leaving them numb.
If left untreated, leprosy can affect the peripheral nerves and cause the fingers and toes to claw inwards. The disease can also attack the eyes, resulting in infections, cataracts and even preventable blindness. Ulcers and infections in the hands and feet are common because bruises, cuts and burns are ignored when the skin loses sensitivity. Untreated infections can become so severe that disfigurement and amputations may result.
People living in poor communities are much more vulnerable to leprosy. Dirty water, lack of sanitation, poor nutrition and lower standards of living mean people's immune systems are simply not strong enough to fight the disease.
There is a cure, and disability can be completely avoided if leprosy is diagnosed and treated early enough. A combination of drugs, known as multi-drug therapy (or MDT), kills the bacteria and the cure success rate is approximately 99%.
In almost every country where we work, stigma towards leprosy-affected individuals and their families still exists.
It stems from superstitions, religious beliefs, attitudes to physical disfigurement and discriminatory laws and practices. Many people still believe that leprosy is caused by immoral behaviour and is a curse from the gods. Others believe that it cannot be cured, is highly contagious and is spread through touch.
One of the most harmful aspects of stigma is that people are too ashamed to admit they have the disease. This delays diagnosis and treatment, making the outcome far more serious than it needs to be. The psychological impacts can be equally as devastating. Leprosy-affected individuals and families are often rejected by their loved ones, excluded from their communities and forced to live in shame and isolation.
Families affected by leprosy find it extremely difficult to lift themselves out of poverty. Long stays in hospital, disability, exclusion, discrimination, lack of access to education and unemployment exacerbate their already desperate situation.
When the Leprosy Mission New Zealand was established in 1912, there was no cure for leprosy. Natural remedies were used to alleviate some of the discomfort, but it wasn't until 1982 that a reliable cure became widely available. Since then, more than 15 million people have been successfully treated and cured of the disease.
A combination of three separate drugs (Dapsone, Clofazimine and Rifampicin) known as multi-drug therapy (or MDT) kills the bacteria that causes leprosy. In most cases the side effects are manageable. Treatment takes between 6 and 12 months, and the cure success rate is approximately 99%. Early diagnosis and after-cure care are vital in preventing permanent disability.
Since 1995, WHO (World Health Organisation) has supplied MDT free of charge to leprosy patients in all endemic countries. We administer treatment to people and families suffering the consequences of leprosy.
The stigma and discrimination that accompany leprosy can be just as debilitating as the disease itself. The difference: stigma and discrimination cannot be cured with a drug.
We educate leprosy-affected people, their families and their communities about the causes and consequences of leprosy and empower them to stand up for their rights. Raising awareness of the early signs of leprosy also means that more individuals do not fear coming forward to Leprosy Mission clinics to seek help. We are committed to correcting the myths that surround leprosy, so that they dissipate, and future generations can live with dignity and hope.
We also set up self-help groups which operate like families, giving leprosy-affected people the love and support they need to get back on their feet. And just as importantly, we tackle poverty by providing loans to people and families affected by leprosy. This enables them to set up their own businesses, and generate much needed income.