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WHO leprosy statistics 2016: A look behind the figures

In early September, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the results of the annual global leprosy survey. 143 states took part in the survey – more than ever before. But what do the figures mean in terms of the WHO global leprosy strategy 2016-2020?

The map shows that countries with high poverty rates are particularly affected by Leprosy (Graphic: WHO)

The latest statistics show how many people were newly diagnosed with leprosy in 2016. Compared with 2015, the number of cases rose from 210,740 to 214,783 people. But what does this change mean in plain English?

What is striking is that there has neither been a significant reduction nor a significant increase in newly discovered cases of leprosy in the last ten years. The fact that the number of new cases has remained fairly constant is driving experts to question the previous strategy. “The rise in newly diagnosed cases suggests that the early detection programmes have improved somewhat in the individual countries, but we can assume that the number of unreported cases is higher,” stated FAIRMED Country Coordinator, Dr. Marc Bonenberger, commenting on the statistics.

The presumed variation can almost certainly be attributed to poorly operating health systems, especially in countries which have a high poverty rate. This is because the statistics predominantly only include those people who are examined in a health facility and are therefore registered. Many others who do not visit a doctor therefore remain under the radar.

State Programmes need further strengthening

The figures regarding newly discovered sufferers who have a disability as a result of leprosy are also somewhat alarming. “The early detection programmes have to be further improved in this respect. In actual fact, the number of people suffering from a leprosy-induced disability demonstrates how well or badly a programme is really working,” says Dr. Bonenberger.

However, there are also some pleasing aspects: never before have so many states taken part in the survey as did this year. The increasing global interest in the fight against leprosy shows that the elimination of leprosy has gained in importance.

Overall, the statistics highlight the importance of the work of organisations such as FAIRMED. We work in precisely those areas where many government programmes are unable to identify or adequately treat all of the sufferers. FAIRMED is therefore making an important contribution to the elimination of leprosy.

Source: WHO Leprosy Statistics 2016

Persistant Trend: Since 2006 the number of newly detected cases of Leprosy worldwide has barely changed (Graphic: WHO)

What does the WHO want to achieve?


In 2016, WHO introduced the strategy for combating leprosy: the transmission of the disease is to be considerably restricted by 2020. The strategy is pursuing the following objectives:

  • No more children affected by leprosy should suffer serious disabilities as a result of their condition being diagnosed too late.

  • Laws which discriminate against leprosy patients are to be abolished.

  • The number of people suffering from new disabilities caused by leprosy is to be reduced to less than one case per one million people.