Leprosy has caused pain and disfiguration in its victims since 600 B.C., but early detection and modern drug treatment now contain the disease quickly and prevent transmission to others.
Better known in today’s medical world as Hansen’s Disease, this often misunderstood chronic bacterial infection affects the skin, nervous system, nose mucous membranes, and the eyes. If left untreated, leprosy can cause secondary infections that affect body tissue and cause numbness and even deformity in toes and fingers.
Most people think that this disease no longer exists, but there are about 150 leprosy cases reported in the United States each year and there are 250,000 new infections reported each year around the world. India has the most cases and the disease also occurs in Brazil, South Asia, parts of Africa, and the Western Pacific, according to the World Health Organization.
Some know of leprosy only from the Biblical references to those afflicted, and many think the disease caused the loss of fingers, toes, or noses. Leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off, but the nerve damage as a result of the disease may cause someone to be unable to move their fingers or blink their eyes. Repeated injuries due to loss of the ability to feel hot or cold temperatures in the fingertips and toes can cause loss of function or in extreme cases, infection that results in deformities.
Leprosy can affect anyone, not just the elderly. Those who have long-term and constant contact with someone affected with the disease and not receiving treatment are most susceptible to the disease, but those with only casual contact with someone afflicted cannot easily catch it. Infants are rarely affected. It most commonly affects people at two different stages of their lives — children aged 10-14, and adults aged 35-44.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The main signs of leprosy in those parts of the world where most people are infected, according to the World Health Organization, are skin lesions (sometimes red or copper-colored), with numbness at the site of the lesions. Most first report losing the ability to sense temperature, touch, pain, and pressure in their fingers and toes.
There are many different types of leprosy and diagnosis must be made by a skin biopsy or skin smears, which are taken from slits made in the ear lobes.
Multidrug therapy is very effective against leprosy and patients are not infectious after just one monthly dose. Some cases require up to 12 months of antibiotic to completely kill the bacteria. A California elementary school student was diagnosed with leprosy back in September by the National Hansen’s Disease Laboratory Research Program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. School officials assured the other students that it is very difficult to contract it and the child’s classmates were not in danger.
Although modern medical facts prove that those affected by Hansen’s Disease need not be isolated, Hawaii enforced mandatory isolation of leprosy patients until 1969. The village of Kalaupapa, Hawaii, became the home of a leper colony in the 1870s when the legislature required lepers to be quarantined so that the spread of the disease could be controlled. The law was repealed in 1969 and the colony, now known as the Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement and National Historical Park, was to be closed. But residents living there were physically scarred by the disease and they were allowed to remain if they chose because it would have been difficult for them to return to a normal life outside the colony. There are no longer any active cases of leprosy at the colony, but in these extreme cases, the effects can be devastating. One resident, Makia Malo, lost his sight and the feeling in his hands from leprosy, but he earned a degree from the University of Hawaii after seven years of study. But even harder than earning his degree was going back into the world outside the colony. He commented during a CBS News Sixty Minutes story: “One of the worst things about having had this disease is that even after you’re cured, society will not let you heal because of the “L” word. People don’t know how hurtful and wrong that term (leper) is.”
The number of leprosy cases has decreased substantially in recent years and it has been reported that 16 million people in the past 20 years have been cured of Hansen’s Disease. The disease still exists, but treatment quickly kills the bacteria and not only keeps it from being transmitted, but saves its victims from a life of disability and deformity.
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