Leprosy: How Much do you Really Know?


Published: 20 October 2020

World Leprosy Day is on the last Sunday of every January (WHO 2020). Take some time to consider how much you really know about this condition.

Because leprosy, also known as Hansen's Disease, is rare in Australia (VIC DoH 2015), you might not know much more about it than what you have seen in media portrayals.

Most Australians affected by leprosy are either Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from northern Australia or people who have migrated from a country where the condition is more common (SA Health 2020).

World Leprosy Day

Did you know that for more than 60 years, World Leprosy Day has taken place on the last Sunday of January, thanks to the French humanitarian strong>Raoul Folleraeu (WHO 2020)?

Folleraeu aimed to use this day of awareness to catalyse equal care and respect for people with leprosy. He hoped it could prevent stigmatisation and improve healthcare regarding leprosy, globally (NLT 2018).

World leprosy day

What is Leprosy?

Leprosy is a bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae), which multiples slowly and progressively affects cooler body tissue (e.g. skin, testes, superficial nerves, eyes) (VIC DoH 2015; WHO 2019).

It is a chronic disease that is most common in the tropics and subtropics and can be cured with multi-medicine therapy over 6 to 24 months, subject to the type of leprosy (Better Health Channel 2017; SA Health 2020).

Over the last 20 years, 16 million people with leprosy have been cured. The World Health Organization offers free leprosy treatment (WebMD 2020).

Early treatment and surgery can help to improve deformities and disabilities (SA Health 2020). Treatment is needed to avoid permanent damage such as:

  • Blindness;
  • Glaucoma;
  • Facial swelling and lumps;
  • Erectile dysfunction;
  • Male infertility;
  • Kidney failure;
  • Muscle weakness; and
  • Nerve damage to arms, legs and feet.

(WebMD 2020)


  • Symmetrical bodily lumps;
  • Eye bleeding and inflammation;
  • Crusting of the nasal lining that causes breathing issues;
  • Permanent disfiguring and disability may occur, particularly in the hands, feet and face; and
  • Loss of feeling resulting from nerve thickening, notably in the hands, feet and face.

(SA Health 2020)

How Does Leprosy Spread?

Contrary to what you may have thought, leprosy is not actually highly contagious (Better Health Channel 2017). It only infects humans (SA Health 2020).

Transmission is thought to occur via the infected nasal lining of someone with leprosy to another person's skin or respiratory tract. Thereby, close contact with infected people increases chances of transmission, but not many close contacts develop leprosy (SA Health 2020).

Infections found in newborns and young children are thought to be passed via the placenta (Better Health Channel 2017).

How Long is the Incubation Period?

The average incubation period of leprosy is five years, however, it may take up to as many as 20 years for symptoms to show (WHO 2020).

Necessary Action for Nurses

  • Remove stigma to increase self-reporting and treatment of leprosy;
  • Inclusion of all people – no discrimination;
  • Continued human and financial resources for leprosy treatment;
  • Prevent complications of leprosy; and
  • Prevent the spread of leprosy.

(WHO 2020)