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Monday, February 1, 1999 Published at 05:35 GMT


New focus on leprosy

Leprosy still found in Asia, Africa, and Latin America

By Corinne Podger of BBC Science

The World Health Organisation is marking World Leprosy Day by highlighting its campaign against a disease which causes crippling disabilities in many developing countries.

Angelo Simonazzi, of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations: "Leprosy is also a social disease"
The disease has almost disappeared from the developed world, but 500,000 new cases are reported every year in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The WHO hopes to eliminate leprosy as a public health threat by the end of this year, but it is still battling a number of hurdles.

[ image:  ]
One of the biggest is a lack of both researchers and funding. This is because the organism that causes leprosy is very similar to the one that causes tuberculosis.

Because the incidence of TB in the developed world is rising, it gets a lot more publicity and funding. Researchers working on leprosy complain that there has been a brain drain of enthusiastic young scientists into high profile TB projects.

Much work to be done

But this insidious disease still causes terrible suffering and crippling disabilities, and it is not beaten yet.

The worst-affected countries are India, Indonesia and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Africa, the second most afflicted region has other obstacles to overcome, like the Aids epidemic and malaria, as well as armed conflicts and a weaker health infrastructure.

The WHO admits that eradicating leprosy from Africa at the moment is "an impractical luxury".

The tragedy is that leprosy is completely treatable. A combination of antibiotics can cure the disease, although damage to nerves is permanent.

In March, the WHO will meet with leprosy experts to see if its goal of beating the disease by the year 2000 can be achieved, and if not, when the world will be rid of it.

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