January 26th (the last Sunday of January) is World Leprosy Day!
Mostly remembered as a Biblical disease that lead to shunning and societal ostracization, the stigma surrounding leprosy has made incredible progress.
Leprosy in fact was renamed Hansen’s disease after Norwegian scientist Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, who in 1873 discovered the slow-growing bacterium now known as Mycobacterium leprae as the cause of the illness.
In observance of World Leprosy Day, let’s take a deeper look, with information courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is Hansen’s Disease?
Hansen’s disease (also known as Leprosy) is a chronic disease that affects the peripheral nerves, skin, upper respiratory tract, eyes, and the lining of the nose. Hansen’s disease is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. There are two major types of Hansen’s:
- Tuberculoid – characterized by relatively few bacteria in the skin and nerves
- Lepromatous – characterized by large amounts of bacteria.
While Hansen’s was once extremely mysterious and carried a stigma, today there is effective treatment available, including a cure.
Hansen’s Disease by the Numbers
- The number of new cases reported globally to World Health Organization (WHO)External in 2016 was more than 200,000.
- Close to 19,000 children were diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 2016, more than 50 a day.
- An estimated 2 to 3 million people are living with Hansen’s disease-related disabilities globally.
- In 2016, the countries with the highest number of new diagnoses were India, Brazil, and Indonesia, followed by some of the nations in Africa.
- Two-thirds of all new cases of Hansen’s disease are diagnosed in India, which remains home to a third of the world’s poor, a group disproportionately affected by the disease.
In the United States:
- About 150 to 250 cases are reported each year.
- In 2015, 178 new cases were reported to the National Hansen’s Disease Program (NHDP), which coordinates care, research, and information about Hansen’s disease in the U.S.
- Most of those cases occur in people who have lived in areas of the world where the disease is still common.
- Approximately 5,000 people in the U.S. have been cured, but suffer from the long-term complications of Hansen’s disease, like paralysis and blindness, and continue to receive care through outpatient clinics and private physicians.
- In some southern states of the U.S., nine-banded armadillos have been found to carry the bacterium that causes Hansen’s disease. It is thought that transmission to people may occur when they handle these animals.
Myths about Leprosy
Here are some common myths that have been debunked:
MYTH: Leprosy is very contagious.
FACT: Leprosy is hard to catch, and in fact, 95% of adults cannot catch it because their immune system can fight off the bacteria that causes it.
MYTH: Leprosy causes the fingers and toes to fall off.
FACT: Digits do not “fall off” due to leprosy. The bacteria that causes leprosy attacks the nerves of the fingers and toes and causes them to become numb. Burns and cuts on numb parts may go unnoticed, which may lead to infection and permanent damage, and eventually the body may reabsorb the digit. This happens in advanced stages of untreated disease.
MYTH: The leprosy described in historical texts is the same leprosy we know today.
FACT: Historical leprosy is not the same as modern leprosy. The leprosy in historical and religious texts described a variety of skin conditions from rashes and patchy skin to swelling. They were noted to be very contagious, which is not true for Hansen’s disease and also did not have some of the most obvious signs of Hansen’s disease, like disfigurement, blindness, and loss of pain sensation.
The term was also used for mildew on a person’s clothes, possessions or living quarters.
MYTH: People who have leprosy need to be quarantined indefinitely.
FACT: People with leprosy who are being treated with antibiotics can live a normal life among their family and friends and can continue to attend work or school.