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Leprosy spreading in Pacific

SHABNAM DASTGHEIB
Last updated 11:34 09/06/2014

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A resurgence in the number of cases of leprosy throughout the Pacific has experts saying the disease is far from eradicated there.

Over the past year there have been 115 cases of leprosy reported in Kiribati and 20 new cases in Samoa.

The number of new cases has been growing during the past four years.

In New Zealand, 11 new cases were reported over the past 12 months, according to the Ministry of Health.

Pacific Leprosy Foundation general manager Jill Tomlinson said that as far as her organisation was aware all New Zealand cases were from infected people coming from overseas.

"Cases in leprosy tend to come in clusters as it is a disease that is transmitted by contact," she said.

Leprosy is a bacterial disease spread by droplet infection. There is no vaccination against it but people with a good immune system living in good conditions have only a remote chance of catching it.

The foundation's relations manager Lala Gittoes said the most important thing was being aware that leprosy was curable and help was available.

"Some people are reluctant to come forward because of the stigma," she said.

"The answer is training, training, training for our staff."

Gittoes said the increase in cases was a common trend.

"Though it's not a hugely contagious disease, it is one more debilitating illness which we could get a handle on and get rid of," she said.

"It has such a long incubation period that we could never be sure that there will never be another case."

Gittoes said there was still prejudice towards the disease throughout the Pacific and in New Zealand as well.

"There are a lot of jokes and people thinking 'oh yuk, we don't have that do we?'."

New Zealand did not need to be concerned about leprosy spreading widely because of the relatively good access to healthcare.

"The average New Zealander doesn't need to be afraid but their concern should be for the poverty which causes the disease elsewhere," Gittoes said.

The first signs were skin lesions that could often be mistaken for another type of skin rash, the difference being that a leprosy lesion had no feeling.

Tomlinson said there was no need for the stigma around the disease as with good treatment and early diagnosis, patients could be completely cured.

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