Together for Zero: Coordinated Research Required to Achieve Zero Disease, Disability, and Discrimination from Leprosy

When one thinks of leprosy, it is of the days of old—a debilitating disease described in literature. With over 200,000 new cases detected every year (including over 150 in the US last year), leprosy instills fear in communities to this day. Those who have been infected with leprosy have continuously been ostracized from their communities due to the disfiguring features this neglected tropical disease (NTD) yields. 

Mycobacterium leprae often has a very long incubation period, but following this time it may affect the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract, and eyes. If left untreated leprosy can lead to permanent disabilities.

For the last 30 years, leprosy has been contained by a multi-drug therapy, an intervention that consists of three antibiotics (Dapsone, Rifampicin and Clofazimine) that kills the pathogen and halts further disease progression.

However, there has been no decline in the number of annually reported cases for the past decade, which suggests that more needs to be done to achieve zero leprosy. The scientific community is reimagining collective action.

Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy

Enter the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy, who led collaborative discussions on the topic at the 2018 COR-NTD meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy was established in early 2018 to accelerate research progress and develop a cohesive operational excellence roadmap towards zero leprosy.

At COR-NTD – which sets out to define the key knowledge gaps and next steps for NTD operational research – the Research Working Group under the Global Partnership presented the initial output of a refined and prioritized global research agenda for the very first time.

Prioritized research themes discussed by leading scientists in the field, included new diagnostic tests, development of new leprosy vaccines, post-exposure prophylaxis, stigma reduction, disability, digital health interventions, and epidemiological modeling.

Another focus by working group members included “sustainability,” using new and improved tools in order to sustain progress. Feedback during the Q&A session was highly interactive and there was much discussion around the quality and access to novel diagnostic tests.

Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy

Dr. Fareed Mirza, Head of Research at the Novartis Foundation and Dr. David Addiss of The Task Force for Global Health along with others presented innovations that could move the field forward. This also included digital innovations like the Leprosy Alert Response Network & Surveillance System (LEARNS). LEARNS is a digital surveillance tool that allows an image of a suspect leprosy lesion sent to a tele-dermatologist for remote consultation in the Philippines. Another digital innovation featured the use of artificial intelligence to aid in the early detection of Leprosy.

“We are reimagining the way we fight leprosy and have the tools available. Working in partnership with the COR-NTD community and prioritizing leprosy research through the Global Partnership we can achieve a world without leprosy together,” said Dr. Mirza.

The sessions held at COR-NTD demonstrated that the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy is fully committed to meet its vision of Zero Disease, Zero Disability, and Zero Discrimination.

Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy

Photo Credit: Novartis Foundation, Basel, Switzerland