Aetna International, leprosy, International Health Advisory Team

Aetna International

Coordinating across borders to battle leprosy

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When Sister Anne (name changed to protect her privacy) traveled to the United States on behalf of a nonprofit organization to work with those in need, she developed a skin condition that worried doctors. She underwent a biopsy and was diagnosed with leprosy — a disease that’s been eradicated in the U.S., but remains widespread in certain areas of the world.

2 million people around the world are permanently disabled due to leprosy

Leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s Disease, is caused by bacterial infection. It is rare in the U.S. and early diagnosis and treatment can prevent disability associated with the disease. About 95 percent of adults are unable to get the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of people exposed to the bacteria won’t develop the disease because they are naturally immune to it, according to American Leprosy Mission.

Despite this, 2 million people around the world are permanently disabled because of leprosy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As Sister Anne began treatment, she found out she was unable to tolerate the standard medication. Doctors decided thalidomide would be the best method of treatment for her. The drug has been strictly controlled since the 1960s, when it was found to cause birth defects.

Thalidomide is used to treat and prevent skin symptoms, such as skin sores, fever and nerve damage that occurs from leprosy, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

A timeline of actions taken by Aetna International to help a member getting treated for leprosy.

Aetna International spent six weeks working with pharmacy suppliers to get Sister Anne the necessary medication

Ultimately, Sister Anne’s treatment plan for leprosy included five over-the-counter drugs and 13 prescription medications. As Sister Anne’s return home to a remote South Pacific island was nearing, she and her team realized there were no thalidomide providers in the area, making it difficult for her to continue her treatment. Because she was not able to withstand the standard medication, a continuous treatment of thalidomide was necessary to cure the leprosy. To receive the thalidomide, a physician would have to enroll in an education program to be trained by the thalidomide manufacturer.

The International Health Advisory Team at Aetna International, the nonprofit organization’s health insurance carrier, assessed the situation, and though they found a physician willing to undergo the training, the doctor was a day’s journey for Sister Anne. It was decided that she would remain in the U.S. for six months to complete her thalidomide treatment.

“We are there for our members before, during and after their trip — no matter where in the world they go,” said Stella George, head of Aetna International’s Americas Care Management. “We do so much more than helping our members understand their benefits and find quality health care providers. Our clinicians listen to member concerns, help them with access to care and resources, and serve as their advocates. In short, we offer whatever one-on-one assistance is needed to ensure our members get the right care, at the right place and time, so they can successfully complete their assignments and thrive.”

As Sister Anne prepared to return to her home on a remote island in the South Pacific, her care management team at Aetna International coordinated with their contracted suppliers who ship outside of the U.S. to make sure she was able to receive her 11 remaining medications. Recently, Sister Anne has reported that she is managing her conditions well from home. She credited Aetna International’s efforts to provide the care she needed in the U.S. and then to ensure she could continue her treatment uninterrupted once at home.