If you think that leprosy died out in the Dark Ages, think again. Throughout the world, roughly 250,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year, primarily in Brazil, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even the U.S. sees between 150-250 new cases of leprosy each year. So a new diagnostic test that quickly identifies the disease may help hundreds of thousands of people get treatment before their symptoms become damaging.
Formerly called Hansen's disease, Leprosy is caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, that is so slow-growing that it often takes up to 10 years for symptoms to appear. Initially, patients may suffer only from rashes and numb patches of skin that are misdiagnosed as fungus or psoriasis. By the time symptoms become more apparent, patients may suffer from crippling nerve damage, maimed digits and joints, ulcerated skin and blindness. And they might also have unknowingly infected their entire family in the process.
A cure that involves taking three different antibiotics for a six- to 12-month period already exists for leprosy. But the problem is that by the time many patients are diagnosed and begin treatment, many of the secondary conditions caused by the disease, such as nerve damage, blindness, and disfigurement, cannot be reversed. So health care professionals are buzzing about the possibility of diagnosing leprosy before these damaging symptoms occur, potentially curing leprosy for many patients who would then be able to return to their normal lives.
The new leprosy test was developed by American researchers at the Infectious Disease Research Institute and it has recently been registered in Brazil to be manufactured under the Brazilian company, OrangeLife. It looks similar to a pregnancy test and can detect leprosy using a single drop of blood. The price of the test will be $1 or less.
Researchers hope that the simple and inexpensive test will allow health care professionals in the field to perform the test on patients in hard hit areas, even if they don't exhibit any leprosy symptoms. This would allow those with a positive result to immediately begin treatment and halt the spread of the disease. Because leprosy is spread through close contact, the patent's family would also be eligible for treatment. That could mean that leprosy, a disease that has plagued doctors for thousands of years, might soon be completely eradicated.