31 July 2023 | 11:44 am
Cases of leprosy — a contagious disease that has existed since ancient times — have risen dramatically in Florida, and health experts fear the contagious disease is now endemic in the Sunshine State.
Central Florida accounts for nearly one-fifth of all cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionand for 81% of cases reported in Florida.
Also known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is usually spread during prolonged person-to-person contact through airborne droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person.
Historically, leprosy has been uncommon in the United States, and most cases have come from people who immigrated from countries where the disease is more common.
However, since 2000, cases of leprosy have gradually increased and have more than doubled over the past decade.
And the CDC reveals that about 34% of cases reported from 2015 to 2020 were locally acquired, as opposed to travel-related cases.
Leprosy is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It affects a person’s skin, eyes, mucous membranes and nerves, causing disfiguring wounds and nerve damage.
Leprosy has existed since before the biblical era, when people shunned and isolated those with the disease in so-called “leper colonies.” It can now be effectively treated with antibiotics when caught early, so there is no longer a need to quarantine people.
Although most cases of leprosy are spread from person to person, the disease can also be spread through zoonotic (animal) contact – particularly through armadillos.
In the southern United States, some armadillos are infected with the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, reports the CDCand it is possible that the animals can spread it to humans who come into contact with them.
Leprosy can affect people of any age, but it is most common in people ages 5 to 15 and people over 30. More than 95% of people infected with Mycobacterium leprae never develop leprosy because their immune systems fight the infection.
Symptoms of leprosy include skin spots; numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, arms, and legs; painless sores on hands and feet; and muscle weakness.
If left untreated, leprosy can cause paralysis, loss of vision, disfigurement of the nose, permanent damage to hands and feet, and shortening of fingers and toes.
The disease can develop very slowly over a period of months or years, making it difficult to find out when and where a person caught it. Antibiotics can usually treat the condition, but permanent nerve damage can occur.
The CDC is now warning doctors to consider leprosy when examining patients who have traveled to Florida or elsewhere in the southeastern United States.