THE Indian government is to trial a new vaccine to eradicate leprosy, a disease that continues to affect millions of people around the world, the majority of them in India.
People affected by leprosy, and their families and colleagues, are to be given the vaccine, known as MIP, in combination with a dose of the antibiotic rifampicin, which is already being trialled in several countries to prevent leprosy in those who have been exposed to family members who have the disease. A recent study by the Christian charity the Leprosy Mission, in Bangladesh, found that new leprosy cases among people who had been given a single dose of rifampicin were almost 60 per cent fewer than among those who had been given a placebo.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that new cases of leprosy in India made up 60 per cent of reported cases worldwide in 2015 — 127,326 out of 210,758 — though, as many cases go unreported because of the stigma still attached to the disease, health professionals believe that the real number of cases is much higher.
The WHO had declared India to be free of leprosy in 2005 — a declaration that meant that fewer than one person in 10,000 was affected by the disease. The declaration meant that the fight to eradicate the disease entirely was dropped.
Doctors believe that the latest approach of vaccine plus antibiotic could cut new cases by 60 per cent, but they warned that other measures must also be taken if the disease is to be wiped out for good.
“If the vaccine is a success, we may succeed in immunising all who are vulnerable to leprosy; but there are other issues we should address before we think of eradication,” a consultant at the Leprosy Mission Trust India, Dr Utpal Sen Gupta, said.
“Unless we improve the living conditions, health, and hygiene of our people, we cannot eradicate leprosy.”
The International Leprosy Congress was held in China this week, and new tools to stop transmission of the virus were discussed.
Delegates called for significant investment to raise public awareness about leprosy so that people receive early treatment to prevent disability, particularly among children, who make up approximately ten per cent of all new leprosy cases.
The WHO has said that it is committed to eradicating leprosy by 2020.
A spokeswoman for Leprosy Mission England and Wales said: “Large-scale national-awareness campaigns are essential if the WHO 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.”
The head of health programmes at the Alliance Development Trust in Sri Lanka, Praveen Gomez, told the Congress of the importance of involving church leaders.
“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,” she said.