Across the world, the common belief is that leprosy has been eradicated and is no longer an issue but the reality is that 2 - 3 million people live with the disease even today, with more than 200,000 new cases across 132 countries diagnosed every year. In India alone, the prevalence rate is 0.57/10,000 population.
Screening and preventive treatment for Leprosy
Leprosy is an infection caused by a slow-growing bacteria, which attacks the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose. It is a disease that is curable and treatment in the early stages can prevent disability. However, lack of awareness in society leads to ostracizing of the patient by their communities and families. This in turn affects the mental health of patients who then require psychological first aid and therapeutic counseling.
In the 1980’s, a global leprosy eradication plan commenced and, along with the involvement of Novartis, it has made significant progress. Until then, millions of people were affected but the introduction of free multidrug therapy (MDT) marked the start of a massive shift in the fight against the disease, with a 95% drop over the last four decades globally. Almost all states and districts in India as well attained the level of leprosy elimination i.e. less than 1 case per 10,000 of its population since then.
MDT has been the backbone of the elimination drive and Novartis’ donation of almost 70 million blister packs of MDT since the year 2000 has treated over 7 million leprosy patients. We have extended our pledge with the World Health Organization (WHO) to build and sustain that success by extending our donation program up to the end of 2025.
Additionally, the Novartis Foundation is a founding member of the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy (GPZL) that focuses on accelerating research, partnering with national programs and increasing advocacy and resource mobilization. Our own strategic imperatives that include access to necessary treatments, innovation of diagnostic tools, global collaborations and local engagement are in alignment with the global goal ‘Towards Zero Leprosy’ by 2030.
Beyond treatment, we have pioneered innovative approaches to fight leprosy such as the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), data and digital technologies to accelerate early diagnosis and elimination. Our collaborations, support and alliances, including a strategic partnership with Microsoft, gives us access to the latest technology, resources, and technical experts.
10-year-old Babu screened in India for Leprosy
However, MDT donation alone may not be enough to fully eliminate the disease. We need to ensure universal access to treatment, enhance early screening and diagnosis and explore the implementation of new prophylactic measures to contacts to further reduce cases. In this regard, Novartis plans to work with local partners to develop in-country ‘last mile’ solutions to increase prompt treatment in remote and under-served communities where leprosy often lingers.
We also want to focus on better diagnostic tools, well-planned epidemiological surveillance and response systems to track progress tools, which are critical to any elimination program. We are currently conducting a study in India to assess the feasibility of developing an AI-enabled screening tool based on skin images that would significantly support frontline workers’ screening capacity and promote earlier diagnosis.
Ultimately, we need to counter the extreme stigma still associated with this disease, which stops people who think they may have leprosy coming forward for treatment. We can do this through targeted awareness raising and engagement with patient groups. Overall, we believe scalable, self-sustaining social business approaches, with their roots in communities and national health systems, have the greatest potential to address global public health needs.
To know more about our initiatives towards the treatment of leprosy visit here.