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Smartphone technology could revolutionise leprosy diagnosis, say charities

16 April 2021

Multi-spectral screening works by measuring how light is absorbed or scattered on skin

SFLG

Manuel, being examined for early signs of leprosy

Manuel, being examined for early signs of leprosy

TWO Christian leprosy charities have funded a research project to develop a way to diagnose the disease with the help of a smartphone, which, they say, could revolutionise the battle to end leprosy for good.

The Leprosy Mission and the St Francis Leprosy Guild (SFLG) hope that the research into multi-spectral screening could pave the way to eradicating leprosy, and transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of potential victims.

The director of SFLG, Clare McIntosh, said last week that she was “hugely excited” by the new research. “We all read the Bible stories, and all know leprosy has existed for millennia — but there is a real hope that actually it could end in this generation.”

Multi-spectral screening works by shining light at a lesion or abnormality on human skin and then measuring how the light is absorbed or scattered.

It has already been shown to help detect melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and the new research project has now been funded to work for a year at the Leprosy Mission’s hospital in Nepal to test how effective it is with leprosy.

If it works, the next stage would be to develop a small light attachment that can be fixed to a smartphone. This would allow health workers in rural and remote regions to use the technology to diagnose leprosy years before the disease shows severe symptoms.

Although leprosy has been curable since the 1980s, about 200,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year, and a further four million are thought to be living with the disease undiagnosed.

Ms McIntosh explained that it often took many years for someone infected with the bacteria causing leprosy to develop any symptoms, which at first were innocuous-looking discoloured or numb patches of skin.

“So, what tends to happen is that people live with those symptoms for really quite a long time, until they become completely debilitating,” she said. Although leprosy can now be cured by antibiotics, the disabilities or deformities that it can cause — blindness, and loss of sensation in hands or feet — cannot be reversed.

“We really want to do much earlier diagnosis, to stop those debilitating consequences for the individual, but also to try and stop that period when they are contagious to others,” Ms McIntosh said.

Despite being treatable and not particularly contagious, in some parts of the world leprosy retains a social stigma, and often means that sufferers — including those who have been cured but still have visible disabilities — are forced out of their jobs, separated from their families, and shunned by their communities.

Historically, the charities that worked in the leprosy field would focus on creating centres for those with the disease, or still carrying the signs of previous infection, Ms McIntosh said, but strategies were changing. Now, the emphasis was shifting towards proactively seeking out people in the early stages of the disease, who often had no idea that they had leprosy, to diagnose them and treat them before they spread it to others and suffered the life-changing stigma of visible deformities.

If the multi-spectral screening project is successful, leprosy charities such as St Francis Leprosy Guild and the Leprosy Mission hope that they can equip their field workers with enhanced smartphones to track down potentially millions of unsuspecting leprosy sufferers, and eventually end the spread of the disease for good.

The head of programmes and policy at the Leprosy Mission, Sian Arulanantham, said: “Pioneering diagnostic tools, such as multi-spectral screening, are desperately needed to diagnose leprosy quickly and accurately in the remote areas of Asia and Africa where we work.

“A health worker armed with the technology to diagnose leprosy more accurately with a scanner on a smartphone is such an exciting prospect. A person with leprosy can be treated immediately, and spared a lifetime of disability.”

Ms McIntosh said that she and her colleagues were inspired by the example of Jesus in the Gospels, who “showed such huge compassion to people with leprosy”.

“In those times, they were seen to be the bottom rung of society: there was nothing that could have worse social consequences for you than being a leper. Sadly, that’s still continued today; so, as Christians, we feel that connection to what Jesus did, and feel we could have a massive impact on that if we address it in our lifetimes.”

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