Despite a new 'miracle cure,' leprosy will not be wiped out in Hong Kong within the next five years as vowed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), doctors say. Up to 20 new cases of the disease are registered with the territory's Department of Health each year, although last year the figure was 15. The WHO said at a conference on leprosy that ended in New Delhi yesterday that it aimed to eliminate the disease worldwide by 2000. But the 'miracle cure' WHO refers to - multidrug therapy - is not living up to its reputation, said dermatologist Dr Lai Cham-fai. 'It's not a miracle. Hong Kong started using this drug therapy [a combination of three drugs - rifampicin, clofazimine and dapsone] a few years ahead of the rest of the world. It takes a long time to cure leprosy patients - at least two years. For more severe cases, it can take 10 to 20 years,' he said. There were 5,610 attendances at leprosy clinics in 1994. Patients receive treatment at the Lai Chi Kok Hospital or dermatology clinics. In Southeast Asia overall, WHO estimates there are 1.6 million cases of leprosy. The disease is caused by a bacterium called mycobacterium leprae which attacks the nerve endings in the skin. Skin becomes discoloured and rough, the extremities become diseased and wither, and the face can become disjointed. New cases in Hong Kong arise from new immigrants from the mainland and overcrowding, Dr Lai says. 'Leprosy is under very tight control, but we do have sporadic new cases. Hong Kong is a healthy community but too crowded. 'The WHO is being too optimistic. We have been saying it should not happen in Hong Kong, but still we get all these cases,' he said. Meanwhile, WHO director-general Hiroshi Nakajima said yesterday the three-day conference in New Delhi on eliminating leprosy had brought hope to developing countries. 'Your discussions reflect the future health policy of WHO,' he told delegates from 60 countries where leprosy is still prevalent. Five years ago, that figure was 93, but a worldwide campaign started by the organisation has helped to curb drastically the bacterial disease. When the WHO began a campaign in 1984, the number of affected people worldwide was about 12 million. Experts at the conference said that although 85 per cent of the problem had been solved, the difficult part still persisted: how to identify and treat those who still have the disease.