Since 1986, the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development has been active in the fight against leprosy. Spreading the message that ‘leprosy can be cured,’ the foundation has played a key role in reducing the stigma attached to the disease and helping patients reintegrate into society. A prerequisite for the campaign’s major success was the free provision of multidrug therapy (MDT) from 2000 onwards by Novartis to all leprosy patients worldwide. The prevalence of leprosy has been reduced dramatically thanks to MDT. Nevertheless, many former leprosy patients suffer from disabilities which continue to impact the quality of life.
local health workers and empowering patients to become autonomous, the project has greatly increased the impact of disability care in India.
Leprosy – a public health success story of a biblical disease
Leprosy has always been more than just an infectious disease. It was considered to be a malady of the whole body and soul, with disastrous consequences for those who became infected. The disease and the deformities it causes were often viewed as a punishment from God and societies dealt with leprosy by isolating the mostly poor patients in leprosy colonies for fear of the disease spreading.
In the early 1980s, the face of leprosy changed dramatically thanks to the development of multi-drug therapy (MDT), an effective treatment against leprosy recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). MDT cures leprosy patients, interrupts transmission of the disease and prevents disabilities. Even patients with the severest form of leprosy experience improvement within weeks of starting treatment.
Thanks to MDT and an international multi-stakeholder commitment, more than 14 million people have been cured of leprosy over the past 20 years, reducing the global burden of the disease by 95% (see figure 1). Today, worldwide prevalence is estimated at approximately 250,000 cases and leprosy is mostly eliminated globally, with some remaining and challenging pockets in several regions.