Treatment of leprosy

Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection and can be effectively treated with antibiotics.

a doctor checking for signs of leprosy with a patient

As a bacterial infection, leprosy can be effectively treated with antibiotics; the bacillus can be destroyed easily. If damage has already been caused to the nerves, antibiotics alone will not restore function and other forms of treatment will be needed, including physiotherapy.

The first antibiotic to be widely used for leprosy was dapsone. From 1950 onwards, dapsone was a major breakthrough for millions of patients who, until then, had been considered incurable. However, many patients still had to take medicines for life. In addition, although dapsone relieved the symptoms of leprosy and for many, provided a cure, it did not eradicate a strain of leprosy known as ‘lepromatous’ that was resistant to the drug.

In 1981 when resistance to dapsone was becoming widespread, WHO introduced multidrug therapy (MDT) which consisted of two regimens: rifampicin and dapsone for paucibacillary leprosy and three drugs: rifampicin, clofazimine and dapsone for multibacillary leprosy. MDT has been remarkably successful: there have been very few side effects associated with its use and over 16 million people have been cured of leprosy following its introduction in 1980s.

MDT is used around the world as it is supplied free of charge by the pharmaceutical company Novartis through the WHO. Over the past 30 years more than 16 million patients have had their leprosy cured through MDT.

For further reading please download WHO recommended treatment regimens.