Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is one of the oldest recorded diseases in human history. It has been mentioned in ancient texts dating back to 600 BC in India, and the disease spread throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In the Middle Ages, leprosy was considered a curse and those affected were often forced to live in leper colonies or were banished from their communities. In the 19th century, a Norwegian physician named Gerhard Armauer Hansen discovered the bacterium that causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae. This led to the development of effective treatments for the disease, including multidrug therapy, which has significantly reduced the prevalence of leprosy worldwide.
Recently, the focus has shifted to preventing disabilities caused by leprosy. Rehabilitation services such as physiotherapy and surgical interventions are available to help those affected regain mobility and avoid deformities. Although significant progress has been made in the fight against leprosy, there is still much work to be done to eradicate the disease and end the associated discrimination and stigma.
Leprosy was identified as an infectious disease during the Dutch reign in Sri Lanka and patients were segregated due to lack of treatment. In the early 1940s, Dapsone was found to be effective against Mycobacterium leprae, leading to the formation of the Anti-Leprosy Campaign in 1954. The use of multidrug therapy (MDT) was initiated by 1983 due to the development of resistance to Dapsone. A successful social marketing campaign launched in 1989 improved awareness and decreased stigma. Leprosy control activities were integrated into general health services in 2001 and leprosy became a notifiable disease in 2013. Contact tracing and online disease surveillance activities were initiated in 2015. The National Inter-Faith Conference was held in 2017 to increase awareness among religious leaders about leprosy. LIFE Sri Lanka Social Marketing Campaign was launched by the Anti-Leprosy Campaign in 2022.
Sri Lanka has achieved the World Health Organization’s elimination target for leprosy, with less than 1 case per 10,000 population. However, the disease persists in certain pockets of the country, particularly in the Eastern and Western regions. The government has implemented various strategies and the National Anti-Leprosy Campaign is a vertical program responsible for all leprosy-related actions.