Press Release WHO/43
26 May 1998
OVER TEN MILLION PEOPLE CURED OF LEPROSY
The total number of people in the world who have been cured of leprosy by the combination of drugs known as multidrug therapy (MDT) has now topped ten million. Announcing this in Geneva today, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that universal coverage of all known cases of the disease with MDT drugs had already been achieved by the end of 1997.
Specifically, 99.3% of all registered patients were receiving these drugs, free of charge - and over 90% of these received them through WHO. Usually comprising a combination of three drugs -- rifampicin, dapsone and clofazimine -- MDT continues to be highly effective in curing leprosy completely, with very low relapse rates of around 0.3 per 1000 cases per year. Possibly more important is the fact that no resistance to all three drugs together has been detected anywhere in the world in the bacillus that causes the disease, Mycobacterium leprae. Up to the 1970s, when dapsone was the sole antileprosy drug in general use, M. leprae was fast developing resistance and it appeared then as if this last-chance weapon was becoming useless.
Dr S.K. Noordeen, Director of WHO's Action Programme for the Elimination of Leprosy, warned today that, although these figures are heartening, many challenges remain to be tackled if WHO and its partners are to achieve the goal of eliminating this disease as a public health problem; this means reducing the prevalence to less than 1 case per 10 000 population worldwide. He estimated that some 1.5 million cases still remain to be detected and treated, the great majority of them in the 32 countries with prevalence rates above that figure. (There were 122 such countries as recently as 1985.)
Dr Noordeen suggested that countries, NGOs and WHO itself must not become complacent because of the successes scored so far, but should maintain the momentum and hold firm to their commitment to reach the goal. The present global prevalence rate stands at 1.39 cases per 10 000 population.
Full details of the progress being made towards leprosy elimination, on trends in leprosy detection, and on the launching of leprosy elimination campaigns in selected endemic countries are given in successive issues of the Weekly Epidemiological Record, No. 21, 1998, 153-160, No. 23, 1998, 169-176 and No. 24, 1998, 177-179.
WHO's current recommended strategy is for endemic countries to embark on intensive leprosy elimination campaigns, aimed at bringing to light the large numbers of still "hidden" cases which must be detected and put on MDT treatment. A small number of countries which started elimination activities late and also had high initial prevalence rates face particular challenges, and these call for still greater intensification of efforts if they are to reach their elimination targets on time.
For further information, journalists can contact in WHO Geneva: John Bland, Action Programme for the Elimination of Leprosy, telephone: (41 22) 791 3891, or Philippe Stroot, Media Relations, Health Communications and Public Relations, telephone: (41 22) 791 2535, fax: (41 22) 791 4858. e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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