Leprosy is an ancient disease with evidence of its existence dating back to approximately 2000 B.C. It is a disease that still exists today. Although rare in the United States, about 200,000 new cases of leprosy are reported worldwide each year, with 50%-66% of these new cases occurring in India. Unfortunately, the severe stigma associated with this curable disease can prevent individuals from seeking the treatment they need. Many live in segregated villages known as “leprosy colonies.” Most of these colonies have either been closed or redeveloped, but many still exist in India today. Organizations such as Embrace a Village are changing how they function.

FAQ

What is leprosy?

Leprosy is a chronic, mildly infectious disease that affects the nerves, eyes, skin, and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract.

What causes leprosy?

Leprosy is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. Mycobacterium leprae, or M. leprae, multiplies very slowly, with an incubation period of about 3 to 5 years. However, symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.

What are the symptoms?

Leprosy typically first appears as patches of discolored skin with a loss of sensation at the affected area. When nerves in the arm are affected, small muscles become paralyzed, leading to curling of the fingers. In the legs, the patient may lose sensation in the feet. Unable to feel pain, the patient may suffer deformation of his or her feet as a result of continued injury and infection. If the facial nerves are affected, a person may lose the blinking reflex of the eye, which can lead to dryness, ulceration, and ultimately blindness. Bacilli at the mucous lining of the nose can cause internal damage and scarring which, in time, causes the nose to collapse.

Does leprosy cause limbs and digits to fall off of the body?

No. M. leprae attacks nerve endings and destroys the body’s ability to feel pain and injury. Without feeling pain, people injure themselves on fire, thorns, rocks, and even hot coffee cups. Injuries become infected and result in tissue loss. Fingers, toes, and limbs become shortened and deformed as the tissue is absorbed into the body.

How is leprosy transmitted?

Current research shows M. leprae is transmitted primarily through coughing and sneezing and via the skin during close and frequent contact with untreated, infected persons.

Is leprosy contagious?

Leprosy is spread primarily through close and frequent contact with untreated, infected persons, but it is NOT highly contagious. 95% of adults actually are immune to the disease.

How many people have leprosy?

Because the stigma associated with leprosy prevents many from seeking treatment, it is difficult to define exactly how many individuals are affected by this disease. Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that for the past few years, about 200,000 new cases of leprosy have been reported annually. In the past 20 years, 16 million people have been cured of leprosy. Again, because of the stigma associated with the disease, many of these individuals sought treatment once the disease had progressed. It is estimated that there are about 2 million people with disabilities resulting from leprosy.

Is there leprosy in the United States?

Yes, but it is rare. About 150 people are diagnosed with leprosy each year in the United States.

Can leprosy be cured?

YES! Leprosy can be cured with Multidrug Therapy. When treated in its early stages, deformation and disability can be avoided. Early diagnosis is very important!

What is Multidrug Therapy?

Multidrug therapy (MDT) is a combination of medications used to cure leprosy. Multiple drugs are used to prevent resistance to a single medication. The treatment lasts 6-12 months, but soon after beginning MDT, the patient is no longer considered contagious. MDT is safe, effective, and easy to administer in the field.

Why is leprosy also called Hansen’s disease?

In 1873 Dr. Gerhard-Henrik Armauer Hansen of Norway was the first to identify M. leprae as the bacteria that causes leprosy. The disease previously was thought to have been hereditary.

How long has leprosy been around?

The first known written mention of leprosy is dated 600 B.C., but skeletal evidence of leprosy has been found dating back to 2000 B.C. Throughout history, those with leprosy have often been ostracized by their communities and families.

What does “eliminating leprosy as a public health problem” mean?

This means reducing the number of leprosy patients in the community to very low levels, specifically below 1 in 10,000.

Is it okay to use the term “leper”?

No. We ask that the term “leper” no longer be used. People affected by leprosy are just that—individuals who happen to have leprosy. They are not defined by the disease. To this day, many are still outcast from society and stigmatized because of the disease—the curable disease—they happen to have.

Facts About Leprosy

Did You Know?

  • Leprosy is also called Hansen’s disease, named after Dr. Gerhard-Henrik Armauer Hansen of Norway, the first to identify M. leprae as the bacteria that causes leprosy.
  • Leprosy is only mildly contagious. Most people—approximately 95% of us—have a natural immunity to leprosy.
  • Leprosy is curable with multidrug therapy (MDT). Soon after beginning MDT, patients are no longer considered contagious.
  • Approximately 200,000 new cases of leprosy are reported each year.
  • 50% to 66% of all new cases occur in India.
  • Approximately 150 people are diagnosed with leprosy in the United States each year.
  • Other than humans, armadillos are the only other animal know to host the leprosy bacillus.
  • Because of the stigma associated with the disease, many do not seek treatment until the disease has progressed. It is estimated that 2 million people worldwide suffer disabilities resulting from leprosy.
  • Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not cause limbs and digits to “fall off” of the body. Instead, repeated injury and infection—as a result of loss of sensation—leads to the shortening of fingers, toes, and limbs as tissue is absorbed into the body.

Leprosy In The Bible

Biblical Factoids

  • Biblical leprosy is probably not leprosy as we know it today. The scholars who first translated the Bible from Hebrew to Greek used the term lepra when faced with the untranslatable Hebrew word tsara’ath. The writers were not medical students but good observers who recorded what they saw. Nothing they described fits clinical descriptions of modern leprosy. Also, no independent evidence from archaeology supports the idea that modern leprosy existed among the Hebrews during Moses’ time.
  • Hebrew tsara’ath included a variety of ailments. The Hebrew word tsara’ath that was translated as leprosy didn’t define a specific disease. It referred primarily to uncleanness or imperfections according to ritual standards. For example, an animal to be sacrificed had to be perfect; otherwise it was tsara’ath. A person with any skin blemish was tsara’ath. The symbolism extended to rot or blemish on leather, houses, and woven cloth. Other Old Testament references to leprosy are about punishment or consequences of sin. Balance these passages against others where God sent different afflictions for disobedience: the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, the Bubonic plague of the Philistines, the foot disease of King Asa of Judah. Leprosy is not singled out from other afflictions.
  • References to leprosy differ between the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word tsara’ath and references to leprosy throughout the Old Testament have two particular contexts: 1) reference to the ceremonial laws and ritual uncleanness, and 2)punishment for consequences of sin. All New Testament references to leprosy are in the Gospels and in the context of healing and social wellbeing.
  • Jesus touched people with leprosy. People with leprosy traditionally have suffered banishment from family and neighbors. Jesus broke with tradition, treating people with leprosy by touching them. He had dinner in the home of Simon, who had leprosy.
  • Today the Biblical term “leper” has come to mean “a social outcast”. Use of the term “leper” reminds people with leprosy of the stigma traditionally associated with the disease. Compassionate people should not use this label.