Physical Effects of Leprosy

The Devastating Physical Effects of Leprosy if Left Unchecked

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic nervous system disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. The primary physical effects of leprosy is in toward the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. One of the initial and most significant impacts of leprosy is nerve damage. The bacteria slowly attacks the nerves, leaving the affected individual unable to detect pain. This loss of sensation can lead to severe injuries, as the person may not notice a hot pot burning their palms, a sharp object penetrating their skin, or even a dislocated ankle.[1]

In addition to these physical injuries, leprosy can also trigger bouts of unbearable agony for the sufferer as infection exposes raw bones. The disease destroys nerves and deadens limbs to sensations of touch or pain, yet at the same time, it can cause intense pain as the body’s immune response to the infection exposes the bones. This paradoxical combination of loss of sensation and intense pain adds to the complexity and severity of the disease.[2]

The first symptoms of leprosy often include eye damage, painless ulcers, or patches of discolored skin with accompanying numbness in the affected area. Without intervention, leprosy may cause crippling of hands and feet, loss of limbs, tissue loss on the face, and blindness.[3]

Tissue Loss and Disfigurement

If left untreated, leprosy can lead to tissue loss and disfigurement. The inability to feel pain often results in unnoticed injuries, which can become infected and lead to tissue loss. Ultimately, individuals with leprosy can lose portions of their fingers, toes, and even limbs.[4]

The physical disfigurement caused by leprosy creates a physical and emotional barrier between the individual and the rest of society. The disfigurement can include tissue loss on the face and blindness, which are some of the most well-known signs of leprosy. Mental health problems arise due to this physical barrier often leading to social isolation, further exacerbating the emotional and psychological impacts of the disease.[5]

In advanced stages of leprosy, symptoms can include loss of eyebrows and/or eyelashes, sores on the soles of the feet that don’t heal, deformities of the nose, hands, and feet, blindness, shorter toes and fingers, and paralysis of the feet and hands. The disease can also cause disfiguration of the face, including permanent swelling, bumps, and lumps.[6]

Nerve damage can lead to a dangerous loss of feeling. If you have leprosy-related nerve damage, you may not feel pain when you get cuts, burns, or other injuries on your hands, legs, or feet. This lack of sensation can lead to repeated injuries and infections, further contributing to tissue loss and disfigurement.[7]

The Consequences of Late Treatment

Leprosy can be cured without permanent damage if medical help is sought immediately. However, the shame and social stigma surrounding the disease often cause it to be viewed not as a curable disease but as a curse.[8] In remote places and among the poor, diagnosis and treatment often come too late. This delay in treatment exacerbates the physical impacts of the disease, leading to more severe disabilities and disfigurement.

Moreover, the leprosy stigma discrimination and misunderstanding surrounding the disease often hinder patients from seeking help. Many patients, especially young people, hide their condition out of fear of being ostracized from their families and communities. This delay in seeking treatment allows the disease to progress, leading to more severe physical impacts and increasing the risk of transmission to others.[9]

Delays in diagnosis have been associated with higher rates of permanent nerve damage and disability. One study shows that patients with a delay of diagnosis greater than 1 year have a 10%–15% increase in impairment, and delays of 2 years can result in a 15%–25% increase in impairment.[10] This highlights the importance of early detection and treatment in managing the disease and minimizing its physical impacts.

In addition to the physical impacts, social consequences can arise due to late treatment of leprosy. Poverty impact, discrimination and stigma, these are a few of the things physical deformities caused by the disease can lead to. This can further isolate the individual from society, leading to emotional and psychological distress.

GFA World, through its leprosy ministry, plays a crucial role in mitigating the physical impacts of leprosy. GFA-supported workers provide medical aid, including wound cleaning and medication provision, to leprosy patients. These simple acts of love demonstrate God’s deep care for all His creation, even those who have been crippled or disfigured by this devastating disease. In addition to providing medical aid, GFA World also works to eliminate the stigma and discrimination associated with leprosy.

By educating communities about the disease, GFA World helps to dispel myths and misconceptions, encouraging early treatment and reducing the social isolation experienced by many leprosy patients. This holistic approach addresses both the physical and social impacts of the disease, helping to transform the lives of those affected by leprosy.

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[1] CDC. “Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy),” August 3, 2023.
[2] Ramos, José Manuel, Beatriz Alonso-Castañeda, Dejene Eshetu, Deriba Lemma, Francisco Reyes, Isabel Belinchón, and Miguel Górgolas. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Neuropathic Pain in Leprosy Patients Treated Years Ago.” Pathogens and Global Health 108, no. 4 (June 2014): 186–90.
[3] World Health Organization: WHO. “Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease).” World Health Organization: WHO, April 6, 2020.
[4] “Leprosy.” World Health Organization: WHO, January 27, 2023.
[5] “Leprosy: The Separating Sickness .” Accessed November 4, 2023.
[6] “Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease).” Cleveland Clinic. Accessed November 4, 2023.
[7] Leon, Kristoffer E, Jesse T Jacob, Carlos Franco-Paredes, Phyllis E Kozarsky, Henry M Wu, and Jessica K Fairley. “Delayed Diagnosis, Leprosy Reactions, and Nerve Injury Among Individuals With Hansen’s Disease Seen at a United States Clinic.” Open Forum Infectious Diseases 3, no. 2 (March 25, 2016): ofw063.
[8] Brink, Susan. “Leprosy Is Not Quite Yet A Disease Of The Past.” NPR, September 16, 2017.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Leon, Kristoffer E, Jesse T Jacob, Carlos Franco-Paredes, Phyllis E Kozarsky, Henry M Wu, and Jessica K Fairley. “Delayed Diagnosis, Leprosy Reactions, and Nerve Injury Among Individuals With Hansen’s Disease Seen at a United States Clinic.” Open Forum Infectious Diseases 3, no. 2 (March 25, 2016): ofw063.