Leprosy is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae and mainly affects skin, peripheral nerves, and eyes. Suitable tools for providing bacteriological evidence of leprosy are needed for early case detection and appropriate therapeutic management. Ideally these tools are applicable at all health care levels for the effective control of leprosy. This paper presents a systematic review analysis in order to investigate the performance of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) vis-à-vis slit skin smears (SSS) in various clinical settings and its potential usefulness as a routine lab test for leprosy diagnosis. Records of published journal articles were identified through PubMed database search. Twenty-seven articles were included for the analysis. The evidence from this review analysis suggests that PCR on skin biopsy is the ideal diagnostic test. Nevertheless, PCR on SSS samples also seems to be useful with its practical value for application, even at primary care levels. The review findings also indicated the necessity for improving the sensitivity of PCR and further research on specificity in ruling out other clinical conditions that may mimic leprosy. The M. leprae-specific repetitive element (RLEP) was the most frequently-used marker although its variable performance across the clinical sites and samples are a matter of concern. Undertaking further research studies with large sample numbers and uniform protocols studied simultaneously across multiple clinical sites is recommended to address these issues.
Keywords: PCR; early diagnosis; leprosy; leprosy diagnosis; point of care test; skin biopsy; slit skin smears.