If leprosy is recognised in its early stages, it can be treated easily and it will not cause the disabilities that most people think of when they hear the name of the disease.  Many of the social problems associated with leprosy could be avoided if people were treated as early as possible.

Dr Pati, State Coordinator in Odisha, explains how to diagnose leprosy

A doctor, health worker or trained volunteer who suspects that someone has leprosy will first ask the woman or man (or a child’s parents) about her or his health and any history of illness or treatment. 

We then examine the person’s skin to find any discoloured patches. We ask the patient how long the patch has been there, how it started and whether it has changed. Leprosy patches usually appear slowly and they do not itch or cause pain. 

Patches are usually lighter than the surrounding skin. They may be pale white or coppery in colour and may or may not have a raised edge. They are found in many different shapes.

We cannot be certain about diagnosing leprosy just from a patch. Sometimes there may not be any patches, but there could be a thickening of the skin or it may be shiny, oily, or redder than the surrounding skin. 

We also ask:

  • Do you have any unusual sensations in your hands or feet – perhaps numbness, tingling or a burning feeling? 
  • Do you think your hands or feet have become weaker?
  • Do you have problems with holding or lifting things or with moving your hands or feet?

We test the feeling on the skin patches by asking the person to close her or his eyes and touching the skin with cotton wool, a feather or a ballpoint pen.  The person needs to point to the place where we touched them.  If they cannot feel anything, they probably have leprosy.

Enlarged nerves can be a sign of leprosy.  The ulnar nerve, at the back of the elbow, is the one most often affected as well as the peroneal nerve on the outside of the leg, just below the knee.  A person may not be also able to close her or his eyes.  We examine hands, feet and eyes for nerve damage which can lead to loss of feeling. 

Leprosy sometimes causes nodules, or lumps, on the skin.  A skin smear taken from a nodule will show a large number of leprosy bacilli.  The test is useful to confirm very infectious cases when it is difficult to be sure about a diagnosis.  Many patients will have a negative skin smear.  This means that although they have leprosy bacilli in their body, there are too few to be seen in the smear.  If the laboratory technician can see leprosy bacilli, it means that the patient is heavily infected. 

Other conditions can look like leprosy, so it’s really important not to diagnose just by looking at skin patches.

You can help us ensure that leprosy is diagnosed early by donating as little as £5 a month which could help train 12 village doctors a year to recognise the symptoms of leprosy.