I've got to be honest: when I think of leprosy, I think of Jesus. Often regarded as a vestige from a bygone era, I was surprised to learn (from a reader, in fact) that leprosy still afflicts nearly two million people worldwide. We now call it Hansen's disease, but referring to it by its pseudonym has done little to dispel myths or stigma surrounding this ancient affliction.
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Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. And if I'm going to be completely honest, I always thought leprosy was a vestige from biblical times. It was first described in Egypt, written on papyrus over 1,500 years before the common era. And throughout history, its victims have suffered an unparalleled stigma. Although very rare, leprosy still affects around 6,500 individuals in the United States and almost two million people worldwide.
Until recently, scientists thought leprosy could only be spread from human contact. Not true. A recent study showed a genetic link between infected people and infected armadillos in the southern U.S. That's right. People can catch leprosy from playing with or even eating roadkill. Mmmm.
Today, we call it Hansen's disease. It causes lesions, ulcers, and numbness in the coldest parts of the body, like your nose and earlobes. Untreated, leprosy worsens, eventually causing muscle weakness, nerve damage, facial disfigurement, and even loss of your fingers or toes.
Long thought to be a curse or possession by evil spirits, some even held that leprosy sufferers were living through purgatory on earth. Out of fear and shame, they were banished to leper colonies or asylums.
We now know that Hansen's disease is an infection caused by two different bacterial agents. Mycobacterium leprae was first discovered by Dr. Hansen in Norway in 1873. It took another hundred years for a team of researchers in Houston, Texas to identify Mycobacterium lepromatosis, which is genetically distinct from its bacterial cousin.
What's interesting about these bacteria is they can't be grown in the lab. They seem to have evolved into something of a parasite, and now they lack the genes necessary to live outside of a host. They also divide at an incredibly slow rate--about once every two weeks. Compare that to E. coli, the bacteria found in your guts, which divides about once every 17 minutes. Because of this, it usually takes between four and eight years for leprosy symptoms to show up after a person's infected.
Another thing you may not know about leprosy: it's actually not all that contagious. About 95 percent of people are naturally immune to it. It's spread through coughs and sneezes, but not through sexual contact. And moms don't pass it on to their unborn children. Even if somebody does catch Hansen's disease, with proper antibiotic treatment, they don't need to be quarantined.
And the good news is it's completely curable. Even though leprosy evolved antibiotic-resistance in the 1950s and 60s, doctors now know that multi-drug treatments work. In fact, since 1995, the World Health Organization has offered three recommended antibiotics free of charge to all leprosy patients worldwide.
If you or someone you know is living with Hansen's disease, you can find support at www.hansensdisease.org.
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