A guest blog from Polygeia

One of the possible effects of leprosy is the development of a disability. If left untreated those affected can develop clawed hands, a dropped foot or even lose their vision.

When it comes to children, such a disability can prevent that child from continuing their education, it can see them be bullied and outcast for years to come. It’s important to prevent that so they can go on to live a happy and healthy life.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises this and has issued a new target: zero leprosy-caused disability in children by 2020 [1]. Their current global leprosy strategy also aims to stop transmission of leprosy preventing infection in the first place.

What is disability?

An individual is said to have a disability when they develop a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to perform tasks that most people would perform with ease [2].

Disability caused by infectious diseases is most common in developing countries, where infectious diseases are more prevalent.

This is not only a physical problem. The social environment, the attitudes towards people with disabilities and the support systems available at home and at work, impact strongly on the lives of people with disabilities. In many countries, people with disabilities face discrimination [3].

How does leprosy cause disability?

Leprosy can lead to disability in a number of ways [4]:

  • It can cause nerve damage to hands and feet
  • It can affect sight
  • Leprosy stops those infected from feeling things properly so people are more likely to injure themselves without noticing. This can lead to infection.

The WHO calls visible disabilities of this kind grade 2 disabilities. People who develop these disabilities as a result of leprosy can be discriminated against, marginalised and even persecuted, due to the stigma surrounding the disease. In turn this can lead to poverty, inadequate education and poor social support.

Leprosy is completely curable; however, the medication cannot reverse the damage that has already been done.

Why aren’t we there yet?

The only way to prevent disability caused by leprosy is to diagnose and treat the disease early, before it is able to cause lasting damage.

Early detection of leprosy isn’t easy:

  • Children with leprosy can’t communicate problems like numbness in the same way as adults
  • Younger children are unable to recognise early skin changes associated with leprosy
  • The stigma and ignorance surrounding leprosy can prevent parents from taking their children to the doctor for diagnosis and treatment

How are we overcoming these challenges?

We are directly tackling the challenges that currently stand in the way of our battle against leprosy. To do this we are targeting the following areas:

Education and training:

  • We train healthcare workers to detect the signs of leprosy
  • We educate communities about leprosy, so people know it is treatable. This ensures people seek proper treatment for themselves and for their children

Access to services:

  • Children who belong to families where leprosy is present are offered testing for leprosy
  • We make sure that those who live in rural communities are reached by mobile clinics

Caring for those who are already disabled:                                                                           

  • It is important not to forget those who have already become disabled as a result of leprosy
  • We set up community self-help groups to teach new skills and promote reintegration to school, work and society
  • We deliver physiotherapy, ulcer treatment and reconstructive surgery to minimise disability
  • We provide protective footwear to help those affected continue to be mobile

Hope for the future:

The new target of zero leprosy-caused disability in children has provided fresh momentum to the battle against leprosy. We are providing practical solutions to tackle the stigma surrounding the disease so that this target can be achieved.

By donating to Lepra you can help in the global effort towards zero disease-caused disability in children and a leprosy-free world.


[1] http://www.searo.who.int/entity/global_leprosy_programme/documents/global_leprosy_strategy_2020/en/

[2] https://www.gov.uk/definition-of-disability-under-equality-act-2010

[3] http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/report.pdf

[4] https://www.lepra.org.uk/lepra-and-leprosy

[5] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs101/en/