Multidrug therapy for leprosy: a game changer on the path to elimination

07 Jul 2017
Smith CS, Aerts A, Saunderson P, Kawuma J, Kita E, Virmond M

Leprosy is present in more than 100 countries, where it remains a major cause of peripheral neuropathy and disability. Attempts to eliminate the disease have faced various obstacles, including characteristics of the causative bacillus Mycobacterium leprae: the long incubation period, limited knowledge about its mode of transmission, and its poor growth on culture media. Fortunately, the leprosy bacillus is sensitive to several antibiotics. The first antibiotic to be widely used for leprosy treatment was dapsone in the 1950s, which had to be taken over several years and was associated with increasing bacterial resistance. Therefore, in 1981, WHO recommended that all registered patients with leprosy should receive combination therapy with three antibiotics: rifampicin, clofazimine, and dapsone. Global implementation of this highly effective multidrug therapy took about 15 years. In 1985, 5·3 million patients were receiving multidrug therapy; by 1991, this figure had decreased to 3·1 million (a decrease of 42%) and, by 2000, to 597 232 (a decrease of almost 90%). This reduction in the number of patients registered for treatment was due to shortening of the treatment regimen and achievement of 100% coverage with multidrug therapy. This achievement, which owed much to WHO and the donors of the multidrug therapy components, prompted WHO in 1991 to set a global target of less than one case per 10 000 population by 2000 to eliminate the disease as a public health problem. All but 15 countries achieved this target. Since 2000, about 250 000 new cases of leprosy have been detected every year. We believe an all-out campaign by a global leprosy coalition is needed to bring that figure down to zero.