Leprosy is one of humanity’s oldest and most stigmatizing diseases. As a neglected tropical disease (NTD), leprosy is transmitted by droplets from the nose and mouth of infected people during frequent and close contact with others. Symptoms develop slowly, sometimes taking years to appear. If leprosy is untreated, the disease can cause permanent damage to skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes. Severe and long-lasting infections can result in paralysis and blindness.
Previous efforts to eliminate the disease have focused on treating the infection and
addressing physical disabilities. Although tremendous progress has been made over the last 30 years in reducing the number of new infections, late detection of cases, and a lack of scientific understanding and global alignment have been barriers to truly ending leprosy. These challenges are formidable and efforts to overcome them have historically been disjointed. An estimated 200,000 people each year continue to be diagnosed with the disease worldwide.
In 2018, The Task Force for Global Health was selected as the secretariat for a new coalition of organizations working to eliminate leprosy, the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy. The secretariat is serving as the coalition’s hub and is supporting coordinated action among partners to accelerate research, mobilize technical expertise, and increase advocacy and fundraising. The Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy concluded in 2023.
Accelerating Research to Interrupt Transmission
The secretariat worked with coalition members to develop a common research agenda to improve understanding of leprosy and ways to interrupt transmission. Partners are currently testing diagnostic and therapeutic tools that have the potential to strengthen national leprosy programs. Studies are also underway to test whether single-dose medication prevents leprosy in people who come in contact with an infected person. Initial findings by partners show the risk of developing leprosy is cut in half using this approach. Other research efforts are focused on developing a vaccine to treat leprosy, and a blood test to diagnose the disease. The partnership will mobilize technical expertise to help countries implement these tools and innovations once validated. The Task Force’s NTD-SC also supports operational research to strengthen leprosy elimination programs. These operational research projects include research in Indonesia to assess the impact of pairing disease interventions with efforts to reduce stigma.
Mobilizing Technical Expertise to Strengthen National Programs
The partnership’s working groups, comprised of experts and national leprosy program managers, have compiled a best practices toolkit and are providing technical assistance to support capacity-building of national leprosy elimination programs. Partnership members and stakeholders at national programs will implement the tools and innovations collected and validated by the expert groups. Sustained and dedicated funding will be required to interrupt leprosy transmission and ensure those living with the disease receive needed health services. The Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy is building a platform for effective advocacy and fundraising to support research and capacity-building. Advocacy will focus on ensuring those affected by the disease are able to live free of stigma and with full societal inclusion.
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Did you know?
There are approximately 179 laws across 38 countries that still discriminate against persons affected by leprosy. A large part of reaching zero leprosy is ending stigma and abolishing laws that stigmatize people affected by leprosy.
Header photo caption: A person affected by leprosy shows the damage that the disease has caused due to its going untreated.