Viability of Mycobacterium leprae in the environment and its role in leprosy dissemination.
BACKGROUND: Leprosy, a chronic disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, is a public health concern in certain countries, including India. Although the prevalence of the disease has fallen drastically over time, new cases continue to occur at nearly the same rate in many regions. Several endemic pockets have been observed in India and elsewhere. The precise dynamics of leprosy transmission are still not clearly understood. Both live bacilli as well as M. leprae DNA have been detected in the soil and water of endemic areas; they possibly play an important role in disease transmission.
AIMS: To study the occurrence of viable M. leprae in environmental samples collected from areas of residence of patients with active leprosy.
METHODS: The study was conducted on 169 newly diagnosed leprosy patients in Ghatampur, Uttar Pradesh, India. Soil and water samples were collected from their areas of residence using a standardized protocol. An equal number of soil and water samples were also collected from non-patient areas of the same or adjoining villages. The environmental samples collected from the patients surroundings were subjected to 16S ribosomal RNA gene analysis after obtaining informed consent.
RESULTS: About a quarter of the environmental samples collected from patient areas, (25.4% of soil samples and 24.2% of water samples) were found to be positive for specific 16S ribosomal RNA genes of M. leprae. Environmental samples collected from non-patient areas were all found negative for M. leprae 16S ribosomal RNA genes.
LIMITATIONS: The major limitation of the study was that the sample size was small.
CONCLUSION: The study demonstrated the presence of viable strains of M. leprae in skin smear samples of paucibacillary patients and multibacillary patients, as well as in the environmental samples obtained from around their houses. This could play an important role in the continued transmission of leprosy.
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