Leprosy — also known as Hansen’s disease — is becoming endemic in the southeastern United States, mounting evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
A recently published research letter from the CDC says that Central Florida accounted for 81% of cases reported in Florida and nearly one-fifth of cases reported across the United States, according to the National Hansen’s Disease Program, 159 new cases was reported in the United States in 2020.
“Spdalism has historically been uncommon in the United States; incidence peaked around 1983, and a drastic reduction in the annual number of documented cases occurred from the 1980s to 2000,” the letter’s authors wrote. “But since then, reports show a gradual increase in the incidence of leprosy in the United States. The number of reported cases has more than doubled in the southeastern states over the past decade.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Florida make headlines for leprosy cases. In 2015for higher than normal leprosy cases in the state.
Here’s what you need to know about the disease amid new numbers:
What is leprosy?
Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, is an ancient bacterial disease that affects the skin and nerves.
It occurs when bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae attack the nerves, which can become swollen under the skin.
“This can cause the affected areas to lose the ability to feel touch and pain, which can lead to injuries such as cuts and burns. Usually, the affected skin changes color,” the CDC website explains. In advanced cases, people can become disfigured and lose fingers and toes to the disease.
Long feared as a highly contagious, devastating condition—and the subject of biblical stories depicting it as a curse from God—knowledge about leprosy has grown, and we now know it can be treated.
Nevertheless, there is still stigma around the disease.
“Those suffering from it are isolated and discriminated against in many places where the disease is seen,” notes the CDC.
What causes leprosy?
Leprosy is typically spread through prolonged close contact with an untreated infected person.
Casual contact doesn’t lead to infection — you can’t catch leprosy by shaking hands, hugging or sitting next to someone during a meal or on the bus, the CDC says.
“It is not known exactly how Hansen’s disease spreads between people. Researchers currently believe that it can happen when a person with Hansen’s disease coughs or sneezes and a healthy person inhales the droplets that contain the bacteria,” the organization’s website says Homepage. “Prolonged, close contact with a person with untreated leprosy over many months is necessary to contract the disease.”
Symptoms of leprosy
It takes time to develop signs of the disease due to the slow-growing nature of the bacteria. The CDC says that symptoms of skin leprosy include:
- Discolored patches of skin
- Skin growth
- Thick, stiff or dry skin
- Painless sores on the soles of the feet
- Painless swelling or lumps in the face or earlobes
- Loss of eyebrows or eyelashes
Symptoms of the nerves include:
- Numbness in affected areas of the skin
- Muscle weakness or paralysis
- Enlarged nerves
- Eye problems that can lead to blindness
If left untreated, advanced signs may develop, including:
- Paralysis and paralysis of hands and feet
- Shortening of toes and fingers due to reabsorption
- Sores on the bottoms of the feet
- Nose disfigured
Is there a treatment for leprosy?
Hansen’s disease can be treated with a combination of typically two to three antibiotics.
“Treatment usually lasts between one and two years,” says the CDC. “The disease can be cured if the treatment is completed as prescribed.”
Early diagnosis is also key, as treatment can cure the disease and prevent it from getting worse, but treatment does not correct nerve damage that may have already occurred, the organization notes.