Leprosy, otherwise known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae, a bacterium that causes damage to the peripheral nerves, skin, testes and eyes. The disease can visibly disfigure those infected if it goes untreated, causing many of those with the disease to be feared and shunned. While Leprosy is not highly contagious or deadly, those with the disease can suffer psychological and social problems.
More than 1 million people worldwide have Leprosy, most of which are in Asia. Only about 4,000 people in the United States are infected. The infection can start at any age, but most times it begins in the 20s and 30s.
There are many unknown questions surrounding how the disease is spread, but doctors believe it is most likely passed from person to person through droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person. But despite the bacteria in the air, most people do not contract Leprosy. Leprosy cannot be contracted through casual contact, such as touching someone with the disease. Doctors also believe that soil, armadillos and mosquitoes may be sources of the bacteria. However, 95% of people who are exposed to the bacteria do not develop Leprosy because their immune system fights the infection.
Those infected with the bacteria can go for years with no symptoms. Since the bacteria that causes the disease multiply slowly, symptoms can take anywhere from a year to seven years to show. The most common symptoms are bumps and rashes on the skin, and numbness and muscle weakness in areas controlled by the peripheral nerves. The most severe symptom is the damage to the peripheral nerves because it impacts a person’s sense of touch. People with peripheral nerve damage can burn or cut themselves without realizing it.
Leprosy can also cause damage to the nasal passages and if untreated, erosion of the nose. Eye damage can lead to blindness, and men with Leprosy can experience erectile dysfunction.
Symptoms of Leprosy are the best diagnosis. Microscopic examination of infected skin tissue will confirm whether a person has contracted the disease.
Because many people with Leprosy are shunned because of disfiguration, in the past, those with the disease were often isolated in institutions or colonies. That practice is still common in some countries. Antibiotics are used to stop the progression of the disease, but it does not reverse any damage or deformity. Once treatment has begun, the disease cannot be passed to others. Antibiotic treatment takes a long time to kill the bacteria, so doctor’s recommended lifelong treatment for some patients.
There are several Leprosy support groups that can help both patients and their families. Many groups offer support in several countries, and help raise awareness about the disease.