- Central Florida accounts for 81 percent of the cases reported in the state
Mounting evidence points to the possibility that leprosy has become endemic in the southeastern United States, with Florida named among the most reported states.
Florida is seeing an increase in leprosy cases that lack traditional risk factors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.
It noted that Central Florida accounts for 81 percent of cases reported in the state and nearly one-fifth of nationally reported cases.
Leprosy, scientifically known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the skin and the peripheral nervous system.
The number of reported leprosy cases in the southeastern states has more than doubled over the past decade, according to the CDC.
There were 159 new cases reported in the United States in 2020, the CDC said in a recently published research letter on emerging infectious diseases, citing data from the National Hansen’s Disease Program.
Nearly 70 percent of these new cases were reported in Florida, California, Louisiana, Hawaii, New York and Texas.
The CDC recommended that travel to Florida be considered when conducting leprosy screening in any state.
It said several patients with new cases in central Florida showed no clear evidence of zoonotic exposure — the transfer of pathogens from wild animals to humans — or traditionally known risk factors.
It added that leprosy has historically been uncommon in the United States; with the incidence rate peaking around 1983 and a drastic reduction in the annual number of documented cases from the 1980s to 2000.
But since then, reports show a gradual increase in the incidence of leprosy in the United States.
Leprosy is a reportable condition in the state of Florida and is monitored primarily through passive surveillance.
Doctors are required to report leprosy in the state by the next business day, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Contact tracing is essential to identify sources and reduce transmission.
LEPROSY: CAUSES, SYMPTOMS AND TREATMENT
Leprosy is a disease caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.
The disease is known to be extremely slow to develop. The bacteria multiply slowly, and people may not develop symptoms for decades after being exposed.
The average time is about five years, but some people may not develop signs for more than 20 years after coming into contact with the bacteria.
Symptoms of leprosy include patches of discolored skin, numbness, muscle weakness, eye problems, nasal congestion and nosebleeds, and sores on the soles of the feet.
More than 200,000 people are believed to be diagnosed with the disease worldwide, with 60 percent of cases in India. Brazil and Indonesia also have relatively high infections, while the rest are scattered around the world.
Historically believed to have been a contagious skin disease that led to societies banishing victims to colonies, scientists now believe the disease spreads – slowly – if people inhale bacteria.
The disease can cause progressive nerve damage, weakness and breakdown of limbs, flesh and facial features if left untreated, but antibiotics can now manage it.