Social stigma, misdiagnosis behind delay in leprosy treatment

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London, May 11 (IANS) Social stigma attached to leprosy and misdiagnosis by doctors are causing delay in diagnosis of the infectious, but curable, disease in Brazil which ranks second only to India in the number of cases recorded, says a study.

Leprosy is caused by a bacterium that affects people’s nerves, giving rise to deformities. It largely affects the poor, and many people around the world are disabled due to the disease.

Delays in diagnosis of more than 10 years have been reported in Brazil, the study pointed out.

“Leprosy is curable, but early diagnosis is essential. Delays in identifying and treating the condition mean that the disease is more likely to spread and the patients in question may suffer more severe disabilities,” said study lead author Mary Henry from the University of Birmingham in Britain.

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Better education for both patients and doctors on how to spot the early symptoms of leprosy would help to reduce cases of the disease, the study said.

The study – which focussed on leprosy referral clinics in three Brazilian states – found that people who suspected they had leprosy, but feared being shunned by their community, were 10 times more likely to wait longer before consulting a doctor for their symptoms.

Researchers also found that 42 per cent of people who took part in the study reported that doctors had not initially diagnosed leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, commonly misdiagnosing conditions such as rheumatism and skin allergy.

They also found that many patients appear to be still ignorant about the symptoms of leprosy, which is considered to be a disease affecting mainly poor people.

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The findings appeared in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

“Leprosy is a leading cause of preventable disability worldwide and endemic in Brazil, which ranks second only to India in the amount of cases recorded,” Henry said.

“This study highlights the need for further patient education on the disease’s symptoms, as well as the reduction of stigma to encourage patients to seek earlier medical care. It also suggests the need for primary care clinicians to be better educated about the symptoms of leprosy,” Henry noted.

Symptoms of leprosy can include skin lesions that may be faded/discoloured, numbness in affected areas of the skin; muscle weakness or paralysis (especially in the hands and feet), eye problems that may lead to blindness, enlarged nerves, a stuffy nose, nosebleeds, ulcers on the soles of feet, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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