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NLM Director’s Comments Transcript
Promising Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Diagnostic Tool: 04/15/2013

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Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and MedlinePlus.gov

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D. senior staff National Library of Medicine for Donald Lindberg, M.D, the Director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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A new, inexpensive, quick test promises earlier diagnosis of Hansen’s disease (or leprosy) that may accelerate medical intervention and a reduced risk of the nerve damage, disability, and disfigurement caused by the disease, suggests a story recently published in the New York Times.

The new diagnostic test, a joint venture of the U.S.-based Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) and OrangeLife, a Brazilian medical products company, yields results in under 10 minutes and is designed to be used by community clinics in developing nations, according to IDRI’s website. The Times reports the test may cost as little as $1. IDRI is located in Seattle and is partially supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The developer of the Hansen’s disease diagnostic tool told the New York Times and we quote): ‘It works like a pregnancy test and requires just one drop of blood’ (end of quote). The developer adds (and we quote): ‘I can teach anyone to use it’ (end of quote).

The test also may be able to detect a Hansen’s disease infection as much as one year before its symptoms appear. IDRI’s website explains an earlier leprosy diagnosis is desirable partially because it enables treatment with antibiotics before a patient develops nerve damage.

The Times explains many of the disabilities and disfigurement associated with Hansen’s disease stem from nerve damage. The disfigurement caused by leprosy adds to its stigma, which can be traced to biblical times and still persists. For example, the Times notes a recent survey suggests Brazilian adults fear leprosy more than HIV/AIDS.

Since leprosy’s symptoms often are latent for several years, IDRI’s website (idri.org) explains the new diagnostic test may accelerate treatment before nerve damage as well as other symptoms occur. Leprosy (but not preexisting nerve damage) can be cured and managed via antibiotics, some of which have been available for more than 60 years.

The Times explains current leprosy diagnostic tests require cutting open nodules that are disease symptoms, and examining them under a microscope. This process can be time consuming and difficult to implement — especially in some community settings in developing nations where leprosy’s incidence often is highest.

IDRI reports 250,000 leprosy cases are diagnosed in about 130 nations annually. While it is rare in the U.S., colonies of Hansen’s disease patients remain voluntarily in medical facilities in Carville, LA, and Kalaupapa, HI. We did previous podcasts about the care of Hansen’s patients at Kalaupapa. You can watch a Hansen’s patient, a caregiver, and the primary care physician at Kalaupapa describe treatment progress and the disease’s stigma at NLM’s Native Voices exhibition website. To access the website, type “NLM Native Voices’ in any search engine.

IDRI’s website reports the leprosy diagnostic test is registered in Brazil and will be reviewed soon by other nations.

Overall, a New York area physician, who has treated Hansen’s disease patients for 30 years, told the Times the new diagnostic test (and we quote): ‘will bring leprosy treatment out of the Dark Ages’ (end of quote).

NIAID notes leprosy is a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects peripheral nerves, skin, the upper respiratory tract, eyes, and nasal mucus. NIAID’s Hansen’s disease website can be found by typing ‘leprosy’ in the search box on MedlinePlus.gov’s home page. Then, click on ‘Leprosy (Hansen’s disease) NIH.’

Hansen’s disease also is one of several mycobacterial infections, the most common of which is tuberculosis. MedlinePlus.gov has a health topic page devoted to mycobacterial infections that provides an overview as well as information on diagnosis/symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

MedlinePlus.gov’s mycobacterial infections health topic page additionally contains links to the latest pertinent journal research articles, which are available in the ‘journal articles’ section. Links to related clinical trials that may be occurring in your area are available in the ‘clinical trials’ section. From the mycobacterial infections health topic page, you can sign up to receive email updates with links to new information as it becomes available on MedlinePlus.

To find MedlinePlus.gov’s mycobacterial infections health topic page, just type ‘mycobacterial infection’ that’s ‘m…y…c….o…b…a…c...t…e…r…i...a…l’ in the search box at the top of MedlinePlus.gov’s home page. Then, click on ‘mycobacterial infections (National Library of Medicine).’

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