What Causes Leprosy?

Leprosy is caused by infection with Mycobacterium leprae bacteria. The disease is spread through contact with infected skin or body fluids such as blood, urine, saliva, sweat, tears and mucus. Infected skin may become red and swollen due to inflammation. Some types of leprosy are transmitted from person to person through direct contact during sexual activity or sharing needles used for drug abuse. Other forms of leprosy are spread when someone sneezes or coughs up blood into the air.

Symptoms of Leprosy

The most common symptom of leprosy is loss of hair and thinning eyebrows. Sometimes, the eyes may turn black. The skin may feel rough and scaly. People with leprosy often have trouble breathing due to difficulty in swallowing or speaking properly. They can’t eat because their stomach hurts too much.

They can’t walk very fast or too far because their feet hurt all the time. They can’t sleep through the night because their legs ache too much. They can’t live a normal life like other people. The most common symptom of leprosy is a numb and tingling feeling in the hands and feet. It’s hard to grip things because the hands feel so numb. After some time, thickening and swelling of the peripheral nerves may occur causing disfigurement of the arms. In this case, the affected person may not even be able to hold a glass or a pen.

Leprosy Treatment

Treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) has effectively cured most cases of leprosy since 1981. In many countries, the number of people living with disabilities caused by leprosy has declined by around 80%. This is why WHO’s target is to end the global threat of leprosy as a public health problem by 2035. New cases of leprosy can be cured with a short course of an MDT, which is safe, effective and relatively inexpensive.

Island of the Lepers

Hansen’s disease (leprosy) is a chronic bacterial infection and is one of the oldest known infectious diseases in humans. Although it is rare in the Western world, there are still many places in the world where leprosy is fairly common. In these areas, it is quite common to see houses for people with this disease located on an island or set apart from society for their own protection as well as that of the community at large.

The most famous island of the lepers is located in the country of Hawaii. This is an uninhabited island in the Hawaiian chain and has been used as a colony for people with this disease for many years. Other places where leprosy is more common include South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

Island of the Lepers Video

This video courtesy of CNN news shows the plight of lepers.

Related Information

At Risk During Epidemics

The plagues of the past have not yet been eliminated. Even today, new strains of old diseases continue to emerge and threaten humanity. In addition, new infectious diseases occur that are unrelated to the old ones. Will we be able to stop the spread of a deadly epidemic in time?

Sources & references used in this article:

The continuing challenges of leprosy by DM Scollard, LB Adams, TP Gillis… – Clinical microbiology …, 2006 – Am Soc Microbiol

Genomewide association study of leprosy by FR Zhang, W Huang, SM Chen, LD Sun… – … England Journal of …, 2009 – Mass Medical Soc

Massive gene decay in the leprosy bacillus by ST Cole, K Eiglmeier, J Parkhill, KD James… – Nature, 2001 – nature.com

On the origin of leprosy by M Monot, N Honoré, T Garnier, R Araoz… – …, 2005 – science.sciencemag.org

Handbook of leprosy by WH Jopling – 1978 – cabdirect.org

Defining protective responses to pathogens: cytokine profiles in leprosy lesions by M Yamamura, K Uyemura, RJ Deans… – …, 1991 – science.sciencemag.org