World experts unite in China to tackle the unfinished business of leprosy

Hundreds of the world’s experts on leprosy have gathered in Beijing, China this week for the 19th International Leprosy Congress - entitled 'Unfinished Business'.

Its focus this year was on sharing good practice and information to help to stop transmission, prevent disability and promote inclusion of those stigmatised by leprosy.

The disease, often thought by many to no longer exist, is still disabling children in 2016.  Last year there were 210,758 reported new cases, with one person diagnosed around every two minutes. However, experts believe this to be just the tip of the iceberg with potentially millions of cases still to be diagnosed and more than 100,000 million people at risk of contracting the disease.  

Sian Arulanantham, Head of Programmes at The Leprosy Mission England and Wales, said, “The Leprosy Mission has presented more than 70 research papers at the Congress.  It has been a great opportunity to share our expertise with leprosy scientists and practitioners worldwide and also to learn from others about new approaches to tackling leprosy.”

A key message from the Congress was the need to scale up new tools to stop leprosy transmission. This includes giving a single dose of rifampicin, one of the drugs used to treat leprosy, as a preventative treatment to family members and neighbours of those affected.  

Studies from The Leprosy Mission’s Research Centre in Bangladesh have showed that just one rifampicin tablet provided to contacts already vaccinated for tuberculosis can result in significant protection against developing leprosy.  It is therefore crucial that health workers start to use this proven approach as part of common clinical practice.

Other new tools under development include a new vaccine for leprosy being developed in the USA, which is ready to start clinical trials once funding is available, as well as innovative research by the Novartis Foundation into a new early diagnostic test for leprosy.  

It will be some time before these are ready for clinical use but in the meantime, it is clear that significant investment is needed to raise public awareness about leprosy to ensure people receive early treatment to prevent disability, particularly among children, who make up approximately ten per cent of all new leprosy cases.

Those attending the Congress agreed that large scale national awareness campaigns are essential if the World Health Organisation vision of a leprosy-free world is to be achieved. However, innovative approaches to awareness-raising are also being trialled at community level.

In Sri Lanka, more than 600 church leaders have been trained in leprosy and are now spreading health messages and supporting those affected by the disease as part of integral mission.

Praveen Gomez, Head of Health Programmes at Alliance Development Trust in Sri Lanka spoke at the Congress saying, “Church leaders are people of influence, their congregations listen to what they have to say and therefore they are in a great position to be able to share health messages and break down the stigma associated with leprosy.  

“In Sri Lanka church leaders are now working with the interfaith forum on joint leprosy activities. This will not only encourage early treatment of leprosy but will also help build peace and reconciliation between faith communities.”

Photo: Tom Bradley