India still tops the world in 2014 in new cases of leprosy
This Sunday will be World Leprosy Day. Despite progress in recent years in monitoring and treating the disease, new outbreaks still occur and there is still no vaccine. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), South Asia and Southeast Asia account for 71 per cent of new cases worldwide. Of the 16 "worst" countries, eight are in Asia: India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and China.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - Two days from now will be World Leprosy Day and India still ranks first in new cases of leprosy. The latest available data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicate that India accounted for 134,752 new cases in 2012 out of a total worldwide of 232,857. According to the Italian Association of the Friends of Raoul Follereau (AIFO), India had more than 12 million people with leprosy between 1991 and 2007.

Since the discovery of the bacillus that causes the disease, a lot of progress has been made in the medical field, particularly after polychemiotherapy came into use in 1982. The combination of two or three drugs (Rifampicin, Clofazimine and Dapsone) has been shown to stop the progression of the disease.

However, "no vaccine has been discovered yet," said Sister Bertilla Capra, a missionary of Charity who has been in India 44 years serving lepers. "Even the Old Testament mentions leprosy."

Speaking to AsiaNews, she noted, "Existing treatments are crucial, but the damage already done is not reversible. For this reason, prevention and monitoring are among the most important things to do."

Non-reversible damage includes ulcers, which typically affect hands and feet and lead to deformity and paralysis. The bacterium that causes leprosy, in fact, only attacks the peripheral nerves.

According to the latest WHO report published in 2013 (with data from 2012), the regional distribution of new cases has remained largely unchanged compared to previous years.

South Asia and Southeast Asia come first with 71 per cent of new cases (166,445), followed by the Americas with 16 per cent (36,178); Africa, 9 per cent (20,599), the Eastern Mediterranean, 2 per cent (4,235), and the Western Pacific, 2 per cent (5,400).

The number of new cases increased in 2011 after a certain decline between 2005 and 2010.  In 2012, an extra 6,231 cases were reported.

According to the WHO, this trend is due to two factors: new health programmes in areas not previously covered brought forth data unavailable before and a drop in the number cases led many governments to cut national programmes and related health services, undermining monitoring.

India is one 16 countries ranked "worst" in 2012 with more than 1,000 new cases. They are Brazil (33,303), Indonesia (18,994), Nigeria (3,805), Ethiopia (3,776), Bangladesh (3,688), Congo (3,607), Nepal (3,492), Myanmar (3,013), Tanzania (2,528), Sri Lanka (2,191), Philippines (2,150), South Sudan (1,801), Madagascar (1,474), China (1,206), and Ivory Coast (1,030).

It is interesting to note that 95 per cent of all new leprosy cases are concentrated in these 16 countries (eight in Asia, seven in Africa and one in Latin America). The rest of the world accounts for the other 5 per cent.