Leprosy prevalence drops by 90% in Africa

Brazzaville, 30 August 2004 -- Leprosy prevalence in the African region has witnessed a sharp decline of about 90% over the last decade, from 560,000 cases in 1992 to below 60,000 in 2003, the Word Health Organization (WHO) reports.

Similarly, the number of countries with prevalence rates exceeding two cases per 10,000 inhabitants fell sharply from 42 in 1992 to four in 2003, also representing a 90% reduction, says a report presented by the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Ebrahim Samba, to the fifty-fourth session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa taking place from 30 August to 3 September in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.

"During the same period, cumulative cured leprosy cases increased from 50,000 to 800,000", Dr Samba says, adding that about 50,000 new cases of leprosy are detected each year in the region. Between 10% and 13% of these carry visible infirmities which result in the stigmatization of patients.

Leprosy, rife among poor populations, is endemic in 42 countries in the region, although 37 of these have crossed the leprosy elimination threshold, that is, a prevalence rate of below one case per 10,000 inhabitants. Two other countries are on the verge of reaching this threshold.

"Despite the progress made, challenges remain and should be met in order that countries of the region reach and maintain the threshold of leprosy elimination as a public health problem", Dr Samba says.

He urges Member States to continue to prioritize and support leprosy elimination programmes, integrate leprosy surveillance with that of other diseases, develop community-based activities, and reduce the stigmatization of patients in society.

WHO estimates that about one million people in the economically productive age group in Africa have been disabled by leprosy, and that more than five million people (patients and their families) are believed to be affected by the social and economic consequences of the disease.

In Africa, as elsewhere, leprosy remains a disease of poverty. However, there is effective and affordable treatment which has proven its worth and forms the basis of the leprosy elimination strategy. The disease is completely curable through the administration of a combination of drugs.

People suffering from leprosy are strongly stigmatized and very often treated as outcasts due to the deforming and disabling complication of the disease which prevents them from working and contributing to the development of their country.

The report concludes, "Strengthened political commitment of countries, development of partnerships and implementation of integrated disease surveillance will ensure effective and sustainable elimination of leprosy in all countries of the Region."

For further information: 

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Samuel T. Ajibola

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Dr L. Bide

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Email: bidel [at] whoafr.org