What do you know about leprosy?

The Bible contains many well known references to leprosy, but did you know that leprosy was quite common in Europe and Britain in the Middle Ages?

Leprosy is caused by a bacillus, mycobacterium leprae, which is related to the tuberculosis bacillus. It is probably spread by airborne droplet infection, although it is the least contagious communicable disease and most people are naturally immune. Leprosy has a long incubation period and the first symptom of it is usually loss of feeling in a patch on the skin. The leprosy germ affects the cooler parts of the body, particularly the skin and surface nerves. If left untreated leprosy damages peripheral nerves in the hands, feet and face. The resulting anaesthesia leads to the tissue damage and ulcers. Medical and lifestyle interventions are essential to prevent disability and blindness.

If diagnosed early leprosy can be cured by multi drug therapy – a combination of three antibiotics taken for a year. After two days patients are no longer infectious. However, drugs cannot reverse nerve damage. Loss of sensation in hands, feet and eyes means that everyday activities are fraught with danger – burns go unrecognised., untended wounds, stones in shoes, grit in eyes, can result in loss of fingers and feet, and blindness.

The disability and visible deformity that leprosy can cause adds to the stigma associated with it. Fear and shame often prevent sufferers coming forward for treatment until the disease is advanced. Despite the cure leprosy is still a synonym for ‘outcast’ in many societies. Leprosy carers try to break this cycle through health education programmes, disability prevention and self care training. Seventeen countries still report more than 1,000 new cases each year, and 60% of new cases are found in India. New case detection rates remain largely unchanged. Over 90% of lepers live in developing countries where resources are scarce and leprosy risks becoming a forgotten problem among other social problems.

Christians have always been at the forefront in providing help to lepers. There is a Christian Leprosy mission which is motivated by a belief in God’s concern for the poor and that its work is an integral part of the gospel of Jesus Christ:

The Leprosy Mission
Goldhay Way
Orton Goldhay

R T Sears

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd September 2006