Chances are, the mention of leprosy brings to mind skin falling from the bone and people cast away into quarantined colonies to prevent outbreaks. While this may have been a reality for those in the past, modern technology and treatments have made this disease a little less scary.
Leprosy is a contagious, chronic disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, a rod-shaped bacterium. The disease is also called Hansen’s disease, after a Norwegian doctor, Armauer Hansen. Hansen was the first to discover the bacterium that causes leprosy and published a paper on it in 1873, according to an article in the Indian Journal of Dermatology.
Leprosy affects not just the skin, but also the peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes. If left untreated, the disease can be debilitating and cause muscle weakness, disfigurement, permanent nerve damage in the arms and legs and loss of sensation in the body.
There are two common forms of leprosy: tuberculoid and lepromatous. Lepromatous is more severe and can causes large lumps and bumps on the body.
Though it is contagious, Hansen’s disease isn’t highly infectious. This disease is transmitted through droplets expelled by sneezes and coughs or by coming in contact with nasal fluids on surfaces. Just touching someone with the disease usually doesn’t cause infection, as previously thought.
Normally, a person’s immune system can prevent infection. Children are more at risk for contracting leprosy than adults, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Leprosy has been in the news lately — but is it coming back, or has the disease always been around and people just didn’t talk about it? “In 2000, it was declared ‘eliminated as a public health problem’ at a global level and by 2005 it was eliminated in many countries,” said Dr. Paul Saunderson, medical director of American Leprosy Missions. “This is why leprosy may receive less news coverage and certainly that could be the case for developed countries. However, there are still 14 countries worldwide that are highly endemic for leprosy or have pockets which are highly endemic and new infections still occur in about 100 countries. There is some news flow from these countries and today, leprosy NGOs all over the world are supporting a final, increased commitment to rid the world of leprosy.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), official figures from 121 countries showed 213,899 new cases of leprosy were reported in 2014. About 100 cases per year are diagnosed in the United States, usually in Hawaii, California, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, according to the NLM.
The bacterium that causes leprosy grows very slowly and can take two to 10 years before signs and symptoms appear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some symptoms may include:
Growths on the skin
Numbness or lack of feeling in the hands, arms, feet and legs
Enlarged nerves (especially around the elbow and knee)
Nosebleeds and/or a stuffy nose
Lesions on the body that are not as sensitive to touch, heat or pain
Skin lesions that are lighter than the person’s normal skin color
Lesions that do not heal after several weeks to months
Ulcers on the soles of feet
Thick, stiff or dry skin
Muscle weakness or paralysis (especially in the hands and feet)
Eye problems that may lead to blindness
Source: Leprosy: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment