In case you missed it, Sunday was World Leprosy Day, which was started as a PR gimmick almost 60 years ago back when everyone thought sulfa drugs were about to bring an end to this chronic mycobacterial infection. Didn’t happen, thanks to mutations of genes and political agendas. But there is good news on the horizon.
The Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute just announced that it is launching the first rapid diagnostic test to identify people with leprosy before symptoms appear. This could be a game-changer because one of the many weird things about leprosy is that symptoms vary widely and often take five to seven years before they become full-blown. During that ramp up, it is common for patients to be misdiagnosed and treated for things like acne, fungal infections, or even cancer. By the time they’re properly diagnosed, leprosy patients may develop skin lesions and loss of sensation, which lead to their becoming disfigured, blind, or maimed. Although a multi-drug cocktail of powerful drugs can arrest the disease, treatment does not confer life-long immunity, nor does it reverse crippling nerve, muscle, and bone damage.
While early treatment will help, the only true long-term solution to leprosy is a vaccine. This has been the holy grail for decades, but all attempts have failed because it is impossible to grow m. Leprae in a test tube. Now scientists have found a way around that. Later this year, IDRI, plans to begin clinical trials of a leprosy vaccine based on recombinant DNA. The goal is to create a vaccine that not only immunizes against leprosy but also intercepts the disease and prevents its development before patients become symptomatic.