Rise in leprosy cases in the city


CHENNAI: Leprosy seems to be back in the spotlight with a rise in new cases in the city alone. Out of the 4,109 cases detected in Tamil Nadu in 2018-19 so far, 294 cases were reported from the city, according to statistics shared to the New Indian Express from the State Health Department.  

In 2017-18, 264 cases were reported by the department.  “A major reason for an increase is the intensive screening that is taking place to detect early onset and the presence of a number of hidden cases in Chennai. This count has only been done till December 2018 and is bound to increase,” said Dr. G. Sridevi, Medical Officer at the Medical and Rural Health Services (Leprosy) Department, Tamil Nadu. 

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease (HD), is a long term infection by the bacterium Mycobacterium lepare. Symptoms include granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tracts, skin, and eyes.

In 2005, the Central Government announced that leprosy had been eliminated as a public health concern. Despite such claims, the Central Leprosy Division of the Health Ministry reported that 1, 35,485 new cases were detected in 2017. There should be a distinction made between elimination and eradication, said Dr. Sridevi. “Elimination is not eradication. By elimination, it is meant that the disease has reached a rate of 0.01%, that is, 1 per 10,000 cases is reported. We have a long way to go before we eradicate it completely.” 

The lack of a vaccination also affects the spread of the disease. “At the moment, patients come to us during the later stages of the disease, making it harder for us to treat it. Research to develop a vaccine is underway. For now, only early treatment can control the disease,” Dr. Sridevi said.  

A doctor examining the skin patches on a patient |Bombay Leprosy Project

Chennai is among the 18 districts identified with relatively higher cases where the Division started a detection campaign. “The Centre wants to completely do away with leprosy by 2019, so they have allocated funds. But the problem is too widespread and embedded in the country for it to be completely eliminated by 2019. A long-term plan is necessary to tackle the disease,” said Dr. Sridevi.  

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