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Travel health information for people travelling abroad from the UK

Leprosy

Introduction

Leprosy dates back to ancient times and was recognized in the early civilizations of China, Egypt and India. The organism that causes leprosy was first identified in 1873, treatment however, was not available until the late 1940s.

At one time, leprosy occurred worldwide but most cases are now reported in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. Leprosy remains problematic in some areas of Angola, Brazil, the Central African Republic, India, Madagascar, Nepal and the United Republic of Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. 

According to official reports received during 2012 from 130 countries and territories, the global registered prevalence of leprosy at the beginning of 2012 stood at 181 941 cases, while the number of new cases detected during 2011 was 219 075 (excluding the small number of cases in Europe).

Transmission

Leprosy is due to infection with the bacterium Mycobacterium Leprae. It is spread through infected nasal secretions from patients with the lepromatous form of disease which occurs in only about 5% of cases.

The Illness

Following infection there is a usually a prolonged incubation period of 5-10 years. Those with lepromatous disease normally have numerous bacilli in their skin where nodules may appear, often most noticeable along the eyebrows, nose and earlobes. Nasal mucosae are also involved which is thought to be the main source of transmissible infection.

The classical lesion in tuberculoid leprosy is an desensitised, depigmented patch of skin. Nerve palsies occur, usually mononeuropathies (damage to a single nerve or nerve group) in tuberculoid disease and peripheral neuropathy (damage to the nerves carrying messages to and from the brain) in lepromatous disease.

Treatment

Treatment of leprosy is with a combination of three drugs. Treatment of leprosy with only one antileprosy drug will always result in development of drug resistance to that drug.

Recommendations for Travellers

The risk of leprosy for the average travellers is extremely small. The risk is greater for those working closely with untreated lepromatous patients in a healthcare setting or volunteers in a leprosy centre who should be aware of the risk and have regular health checks.

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