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Leprosy in Far North Queensland: almost gone, but not to be forgotten

Allison Hempenstall, Simon Smith and Josh Hanson
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja2.50243
Published online: 5 August 2019

People with leprosy, a chronic granulomatous disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, classically present with hypopigmented or erythematous, anaesthetic skin lesions (Box 1) or thickened peripheral nerves. Leprosy can be cured with antibiotics, but severe deformity and long term disability are common if therapy is delayed.

Leprosy is now very rarely acquired in Australia, but it is still diagnosed; Indigenous Australians in remote locations bear the greatest burden of disease.1,2 Historically, its incidence has been highest in the Northern Territory, but cases are also diagnosed in Far North Queensland (FNQ), a region that adjoins Papua New Guinea (PNG), where leprosy remains endemic.3

Since 1985, Torres Strait Islander Australians and PNG nationals have been able to move freely across the border to pursue traditional activities in the Torres Strait Protected Zone. This arrangement acknowledges the importance of their shared cultural history, but also means that FNQ clinicians may encounter conditions that are rare in temperate Australia. The potential public health implications are also clear.4

To evaluate the epidemiology of leprosy in FNQ, we retrospectively reviewed all laboratory‐confirmed cases diagnosed in the region during 1989–2018. The Far North Queensland Human Research and Ethics Committee provided ethics approval for the study (reference, HREC/18/QCH/107).

Twenty cases of leprosy were identified in the Queensland Health Notifiable Conditions Register (Box 2). The median age of the patients was 26 years (interquartile range, 16–36 years); 11 patients had been born in Australia, including seven of nine Torres Strait Islanders (but no Aboriginal Australians). Apart from 1989 (six cases) and 2017 (three cases), no more than two cases had been notified in a single year. The most recent Australian‐born patient was a 28‐year old Torres Strait Islander woman diagnosed in 2009; she had had close contact with a person with leprosy born in PNG.

The low numbers of cases of locally acquired leprosy in FNQ reflect improved access to treatment and less household overcrowding, factors that reduce M. leprae transmission. However, while there has been no case of locally acquired leprosy since 2009, two PNG‐born Torres Strait Islanders were diagnosed with the disease in the past decade. The continuous flow of people between Australia and PNG makes ongoing vigilance essential.

Leprosy remains a significant problem in PNG. In 2015, 388 new cases were notified, and the annual number has changed little over the past decade.3 Australia will provide an estimated $608 million in development assistance to PNG during 2019–20,5 some of which will be used to strengthen its struggling public health system, and non‐government organisations involved in containing leprosy will also receive funding.6 However, more could be done. Leprosy is a disabling and infectious condition that can be rapidly cured. Public health programs have dramatically reduced the burden of infectious diseases in Australia. More support for similar programs in PNG will not only help our nearest neighbours, but also reduce the risk that infectious diseases almost forgotten by Australians will re‐appear.

Box 1 – Skin lesion on the thigh of a patient diagnosed with leprosy in Far North Queensland*


* The coppery, hypoaesthetic patch had been present for several months; biopsy confirmed multi‐bacillary leprosy. ◆

Box 2 – Demographic characteristics of people diagnosed with leprosy in Far North Queensland, 1989–2018

Notification

Age (years)

Sex

Country of birth

Indigenous status


1989

20

Female

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

1989

48

Male

Australia

Non‐Indigenous

1989

46

Female

United Kingdom

Non‐Indigenous

1989

21

Male

Australia

Non‐Indigenous

1989

24

Male

Australia

Non‐Indigenous

1989

17

Male

Australia

Non‐Indigenous

1993

6

Male

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

1994

13

Male

Papua New Guinea

Non‐Indigenous

1994

11

Male

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

1995

30

Male

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

1997

16

Female

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

1997

33

Male

Vietnam

Non‐Indigenous

2002

33

Male

Laos

Non‐Indigenous

2003

20

Male

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

2009

28

Female

Australia

Torres Strait Islander

2009

13

Female

Papua New Guinea

Torres Strait Islander

2017

35

Male

Papua New Guinea

Torres Strait Islander

2017

53

Male

Papua New Guinea

Non‐Indigenous

2017

48

Male

Philippines

Non‐Indigenous

2018

36

Male

Bhutan

Non‐Indigenous


 

Received 27 February 2019, accepted 29 April 2019

  • Allison Hempenstall1,2
  • Simon Smith3
  • Josh Hanson3

  • 1 Thursday Island Hospital, Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service, Thursday Island, QLD
  • 2 James Cook University, Cairns, QLD
  • 3 Cairns Hospital, Cairns, QLD


Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.■

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