Leprosy is a very misunderstood disease. People think of sick beggars with fingers and limbs falling off left and right, severe deformities of their face and body, and of course, a horribly contagious disease without any treatment.
Not so! So let's learn some leprosy stuff.
What is it?
Leprosy (also called Hansen's Disease) is caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae.
How common is it?
In 1985, there were 54 million cases worldwide. In 2010, there were less than 300,000. In the U.S., there were 205 new cases in 2010.
Where is it most commonly found?
In developing countries, like Bangladesh, Brazil, Nigeria, for example. Most of the U.S. cases are from immigrants or those traveling to developing countries.
How do you get it?
It's usually spread through respiratory droplets, similar to the flu or colds. Some cases have been reported after contact with armadillos. Yes! The pill bugs of the animal world!
Do the armadillos suffer from leprosy too?
Most armadillos don't live long enough in the wild to manifest the disease. But in captivity, they do. Up to 20% of the armadillo population is probably affected. They probably got it from humans centuries ago! Yep, OUR fault.
How contagious is it?
Most people exposed to leprosy do NOT get the disease.
What are the symptoms?
Leprosy affects the skin and the nerve endings of the body.
After an exposure, it usually takes 3-5 years before any signs show up.
- Skin lesions that can look like circular burn marks, target lesions, thickened reddish patches
- Numbness within those skin lesions
- Tingling or numbness of the hands and feet
- Lumps and nodules on the face and earlobes
- Loss of eyebrows and eyelashes
- Dryness of the cornea (the clear covering over your iris), abrasions and ulcers
- Only in advanced disease, when the numb fingers and feet allow people to get trauma and infections, are there limbs falling off--not directly due to leprosy, but the secondary infections that happen.
- The leprosy bacterium grows better in cooler environments, which is why it has a tendency to affect the skin and respiratory tract and armadillos (cooler core body temperature than other animals).
- It tends to infect men more than women
- It's relatively slow growing
- The nerve damage can cause disability to the legs, arms, and eyes can be permanent and cause permanent disability, which is why early treatment is very important.
Yes. The BCG vaccine (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin) which is usually used outside of the U.S. to prevent tuberculosis, is also over 50% effective in preventing leprosy. Because leprosy is so uncommon in the U.S., this vaccine isn't used here.
What is the treatment?
Antibiotics. Dapsone and rifampin, and sometimes a third agent clofazimine, are used for anywhere from 12 to 24 months of treatment. These medications are highly effective, meaning it's pretty easy to cure leprosy.
Not sure if you're going to run with this and write about leprosy in your next book, but if you do, do me a favor and stick an armadillo in there, okay? :)