This week the government of the India announced a major step: the world’s first leprosy vaccine, developed in-country but tied up for years in testing, will be rolled out in Gujarat and Bihar, two states where the problem is sharpest, The Guardian reported
Today India accounts for more than 60% of the world’s new leprosy cases and health officials have quietly moved to a “war footing” against it, one senior researcher says.
The disease officially afflicts fewer than one in 10,000 people. But specialists understand the true infection rate to be far higher (according to unofficial sources - five to six cases per 10,000), and the disease is still endemic in some of the country’s poorest districts. For all the fear it conjures, leprosy, caused by the pathogen Mycobacterium leprae, has been effectively treatable since the 1940s. It isn’t particularly contagious either, its spread requiring regular contact with an untreated sufferer, and an immune system already compromised by genetics or poverty.
“The real problem is the level of stigma,” said Dr Sunil Anand, the executive director of the Leprosy Mission. “Those who get leprosy tend to be ostracised and stigmatised by the community, they tend to hide away.” That makes containing the disease or treating it before disfigurement sets in, harder.
The vaccine will be administered both to people with leprosy and those in close and regular contact with them, in combination with the antibiotic Rifampicin. Trials of the vaccine have shown it could bring existing rates down by 65% over three years, according to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the director-general of the ICMR.
The rollout is accompanied by a new round of “active case detection” – health workers going house-to-house “to hopefully detect new leprosy cases which were undiagnosed in the community”. Fifty districts have already been swept, turning up 5,000 previously undetected cases.