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Friday, 15th of February 2008 Print

 Though leprosy is targeted for elimination as a public health
 problem, it has not received the same attention as other target diseases.
 Here, Paul Fine of the London School asks what is being eliminated.
 He concludes that "Leprosy and associated disabilities are not going to
 disappear for a very long time, if ever. As recognized in WHO's Global
 Strategy 2006–2010, there will be continued need for leprosy research
 capability and for specialist clinical expertise."On line at
 Good reading.
 Bob Davis
 Bull World Health Organ, vol.85 no.1, Jan. 2007
  Leprosy: what is being "eliminated"?
 Paul E M Fine
 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; correspondence to
 Leprosy is a well known but poorly understood disease; even its sources and
 modes of infection transmission are still contentious issues. The World
 Health Organization has made important contributions to leprosy research
 and control through inclusion of leprosy in the multi-agency Special
 Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) and by
 leading a global leprosy elimination initiative.
 In 1991 the World Health Assembly (WHA) passed a resolution to "eliminate
 leprosy as a public health problem" by the year 2000. The implications of
 this resolution have dominated discussion and activity in the leprosy
 community in the past 15 years. A footnote to the WHA resolution explained
 that elimination was to be defined in this context as a reduction in
 prevalence below 1 per 10 000.
 This is important. Prevalence at any point in time (e.g. 31 December) is a
 function of duration, as well as of incidence, and the primary strategy of
 the initiative has been to reduce prevalence by reducing treatment duration
 through the institution of short-course multiple-drug regimens. It was also
 hoped that use of these shorter-term and more-effective drug regimens would
 reduce infection transmission, and thus effectively reduce incidence of
 infection and ultimately of disease.
 The programme has had a massive effect on reported prevalence. According to
 data submitted to WHO — the global figures are presented annually in the
 Weekly Epidemiological Record (WER), most recently in August 2006 — the
 elimination target was reached globally (using the total human population
 as a denominator) in 2000, and by the end of 2005 all but six countries
 reported year-end prevalence below 1 per 10 000.
 That much is a success. However, if one looks closely at the published
 data, it is not clear what has actually happened.
 The elimination initiative has encouraged some major changes. These include
 changes in case-finding policies: massive house-to-house surveys inevitably
 find cases and lead to peaks of case detection, but many cases found early
 in a year are removed by the end of December, and hence not included in
 reported prevalence. There have been changes in classification: a new
 system based upon numbers of lesions is applied differently in different
 countries, making data inconsistent with previous classification systems.
 Other changes are in registration, as some countries have not registered
 cases with single lesions or have required confirmation of all diagnoses by
 district teams, both of which practices reduce official prevalence. In
 terms of treatment, some countries have not followed WHO guidelines,
 instead maintaining cases on treatment for long periods, which inflates
 prevalence. Information on these changes is not available, though this
 information is essential for interpreting data from individual countries.
 These data should be included with the WER annual reports.
 Though prevalence has come down, the extent to which there has been a
 reduction in incidence is less clear. Some analyses have suggested that
 little or no reduction has occurred as a result of the initiative.1
 Incidence declines started in many countries long before this programme;
 these are attributable to improving socioeconomic conditions and to the
 Bacille Calmette–Guérin vaccine.
 Interestingly, there is no evidence that the global initiative has led to
 the disappearance ("local eradication") of infection or disease from any
 population, and leprosy continues to appear throughout Africa, Asia and
 Latin America, southern Europe and even in the US states of Louisiana and
 Texas (where it may be a zoonosis associated with armadillos).
 This persistence adds to the list of mysteries about this ancient disease.
 Perhaps more time will be required to show the recent initiatives' impact
 on incidence. Or perhaps there is no effect, because we are failing to
 understand some important aspect of the disease's natural history; there is
 some evidence that the leprosy bacillus may be maintained as a silent
 transient infection in nasal cavities in endemic areas.2,3 Research is
 needed to examine these questions.
 It is not difficult to argue that the elimination concept has, in this
 instance, now served its purpose, and that it might even become detrimental
 to public health. The programme's rhetoric has led to the impression in
 some quarters that leprosy no longer exists. This is wrong, but the
 distinction between eradication and elimination is widely misunderstood.
 By encouraging repeated changes of definitions, ascertainment procedures,
 and diagnostic and registration conventions, the initiative has in effect
 eliminated our ability to monitor and understand what has actually
 happened. And it has come close to eliminating leprosy research.4 Neither
 funders nor young researchers are attracted to an officially "eliminated"
 disease — even if it is still ubiquitous. The main leprosy journal of the
 past 70 years (the International Journal of Leprosy) published its last
 issue in March 2005, and there is now little active research on the
 disease, despite our continued ignorance of its natural history.
 Leprosy and associated disabilities are not going to disappear for a very
 long time, if ever. As recognized in WHO's Global Strategy 2006–2010, there
 will be continued need for leprosy research capability and for specialist
 clinical expertise.5 WHO should discontinue its rhetoric about eliminating
 leprosy, lest these essential efforts against the disease be eliminated as
 well. (Embedded image moved to file: pic08729.gif)
 1. Meima A, Richardus JH, Habbema JDF. Trends in leprosy case detection
 worldwide since 1985. Lepr Rev 2004;75:19-33.
 2. Smith WCS, Smith CM, Cree IA, Jadhav RS, Macdonald M, Edward VK, et al.
 Int J Lepr 2004;72:269-77.
 3. Fine PEM. Is it really M leprae? Int J Lepr 2004;72:317-9.
 4. Scollard DM. Leprosy research declines, but most of the basic questions
 remain unanswered. Int J Lepr 2005;73:25-7.
 5. Global Strategy for Further Reducing the Leprosy Burden and Sustaining
 Leprosy Control Activities (Plan Period 2005–2010).

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