JCU working with Timorese health professionals to understand barriers to early leprosy case detection

@JCU JCU working with Timorese health professionals to understand barriers to early leprosy case detection

Words supplied by Associate Professor Richard Franklin:

Pictured: Kathy Fowden (JCU Doctor of Public Health Candidate) and her Timorese work colleagues during her time living in Oecusse.

Doctor of Public Health student, Kathy Fowden and supervisor, Associate Professor Richard Franklin, recently travelled to Timor-Leste as part of Kathy’s research into preventing leprosy.

While there, they interviewed health practitioners about their experiences of factors for the early case detection of leprosy.

Timor-Leste as a nation of 1.2 million people achieved their leprosy elimination target of less than 1 case per 10,000 in 2012.

Unfortunately, a much higher prevalence of 7 cases per 10,000 remains in the Oecusse enclave of Timor-Leste.  Early signs of leprosy can be difficult to identify, and typically include small skin lesions and patches.  If left untreated, leprosy can lead to permanent disability including limb amputation.

Today, leprosy can be cured relatively easily through a course of antibiotics (Multi-Drug Therapy), with the treatment halting the progression of the disease.  Despite this, the treatment will only be effective at reducing permanent disability if the condition is able to be identified at an early stage in the disease progression.

Practitioners interviewed ranged from dermatologists and medical doctors to nurses involved specifically in leprosy management programmes. Key themes identified during the interviews were:

  • A lack of community awareness about early leprosy symptoms
  • Patients seek treatment when the condition is already advanced, making effective treatment difficult;
  • There appears to be an increase in the number of cases; and need for training of health professional around early case detection.

Kathy lived in the Oecusse enclave in 2010/2011, and became aware of the impact of leprosy on the community during her time there.

With her team of supervisors, Kathy hopes to develop and implement a school based screening and education programme to detect early signs of leprosy, as well as yaws and scabies, and facilitate early access to the treatment.

The aim of the next phase of the project is to explore how to educate the community to identify leprosy in its early stages.