Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Leprosy may end in China by 2020

After decades of effort against leprosy, the possibility of eliminating the disease in China is possible by 2020, according to Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, on Tuesday.

Eradication is measured by the reduction of new cases over time.

Because leprosy has an incubation period of five to 10 years, a person acquiring symptoms today may have been infected years ago. But the disease has been in decline in China and is expected to trickle to a halt by 2020.

Aerts spoke with China Daily during the 19th International Leprosy Congress in Beijing.

Leprosy is infectious but curable. The organism that causes it, mycobacterium leprae, has the unique ability to infect the peripheral nerves in humans, which may result in an inability to feel pain in the hands or feet, blindness and the loss of fingers or toes.

Currently, China detects around 600 to 700 new leprosy patients annually. They can receive immediate treatment through the country's healthcare system, which has successfully reduced transmission of the disease, Aerts said.

Globally, around 211,000 people were diagnosed with leprosy in 2015 - an average of one every 2.5 minutes. Of those, 1 in 11 are children, indicating continued transmission of the disease.

It is estimated that 1.2 million people are visibly and irreversibly disabled by leprosy, the foundation said.

India, Indonesia and Brazil account for 85 percent the leprosy patients worldwide. They are learning from China's experience in treating this disease, Aerts said.

"China has kept the level of knowledge on leprosy high among healthcare workers, which has been beneficial for bringing the disease under control," she said. "In some countries, leprosy no longer figures in the education curriculum for nurses and doctors, and that has led to a general waning of leprosy expertise, resulting in missed opportunities and delayed diagnoses."

For now, what China needs to do to eliminate leprosy is to interrupt its transmission - for example, by examining the family members and neighbors of existing patients and offering preventive treatment, she said.

Novartis, a Switzerland-based global healthcare company, provides anti-leprosy medicine free and has donated more than 56 million blister packs valued at around $90 million through the World Health Organization, which has helped to treat more than 6 million leprosy patients around the globe since 2000.

Chen Zhiqiang, secretary-general of the Handa Rehabilitation and Welfare Association in Guangdong province and one of seven members of the experts' commission of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations, said it's important to end discrimination against leprosy patients during the "last mile" in the fight against this disease.

"It took a long time for people to understand that the disease can be cured, even though the disabilities it caused cannot be reversed," he said. "Thus, the key to eliminate the disease is to reach zero transmission, and a lot of work needs to be done."

According to the federation, leprosy-control programs have shown impressive results over the past three decades. With the introduction of multidrug therapy, the registered prevalence of leprosy globally decreased from more than 5 million people in the mid-1980s to around 200,000 in the last year.

More than 16 million people affected by leprosy have been treated since the 1980s. However, evidence that transmission of the disease still occurs can be seen in the consistent diagnosis of leprosy in children in many settings.


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