In recent months, researchers in India have made strides towards developing mycobacterium indicus pranii (MIP) – the world’s first leprosy vaccine.
The vaccine was developed by founder-director of the National Institute of Immunology (NII) Professor Gursaran Prasad Talwar and has been approved by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI). It has been suggested that the vaccine will reduce the rate of leprosy in the country by 60% within 3 years. Its administration will follow a trial run in five districts of Bihar and Gujarat. If successful, the vaccine’s use will be expanded to other areas with a high burden of disease, according to the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Soumya Swaminathan.
Leprosy itself has been notorious since ancient times, with a stigma attached due to its infectious nature that often saw those affected isolated within separate communities referred to as leper colonies.
Once thought of in ancient civilisations – including India – as an unstoppable plague, leprosy is now much less feared.
With advances in modern medicine – including the discovery of the Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae) bacteria by Gerhard Armauer Hansen in 1873 – the disease is now known to be far less communicable than once thought. Infection generally occurs only in those with close contact with nose and mouth droplets from the infected. Disease pathology presents itself as disfiguring skin sores as well as nerve damage, displaying as muscle weakness within the arms and legs.
Issues arise, particularly in rural communities where access to healthcare is limited, due to the incubation time of the bacteria which has been known to last up to 20 years without symptoms. As a result, it can be near impossible to establish where the person became infected.
This new vaccine may seem like a ray of hope for those suffering with the disease. However, the vaccine’s effectiveness may come under question as it is the first vaccine created for the prevention of leprosy. This, coupled with the lack of interest and, consequently, research outside of India at the very least brings a degree of scrutiny.
On the other hand, developing a vaccine for leprosy is not a new phenomenon in India; research has been undertaken to this end as far back as 1978. Professor Talwar, the man leading the studies responsible for the development of this vaccine was publishing research to this end published 38 years before the development of the vaccine.
The study and treatment of leprosy is of great importance to India. Charities have said that India has the highest number of people with leprosy in the world, accounting for 58% of new reported cases. Actual numbers of cases may well be higher due to low diagnosis rates, as a result of poor health infrastructure in rural areas as well as difficulty of diagnosis due to incubation periods.
If the trials are successful, we may be witnessing the fruition of efforts spanning the past few decades, to reprieve the thousands, both in India and across the globe, afflicted with this disease.