Medicine's war on leprosy has made great strides this century, cutting the rate of infection by two-thirds in just the last decade.

The U.N. World Health Organization reported about 890,000 victims at the beginning of this year, compared to as many as 15 million in 1987.

Also called Hansen's disease, leprosy is a bacteria-triggered illness of the nervous system. Although its victims were ostracized for millennia in virtually every part of the world, leprosy is neither fatal nor highly contagious.

A cure has existed for a half century, if the disease is detected in its early stages. The drug dapsone was long used to knock out the disease, but since the mid-1980s multi-drug therapy has been used.

Without early treatment, victims can suffer clawed hands, distorted features and other deformities through damage to the nervous system.

Leprosy is mainly a disease of the world's ``poverty belt.''

India, Indonesia and Burma account for 70 percent of all cases.

Africa is the second most affected region, and civil wars, poor health services and the diversion of resources to the AIDS epidemic are undercutting the anti-leprosy campaign there.

The disease persists in Latin America, where Brazil and Colombia report more than 80 percent of the cases.

Sporadic infections occur in central and eastern Europe but rarely in the industrial nations. Some 50 people are treated each year in the United States and a dozen in Japan.