Placing Leprosy in the Limelight

“Picking out” the myths about leprosy.

Oftentimes (and fortunately), the only encounter most Americans have had with leprosy has been within the pages of a biblical text. In fact, leprosy is referenced a total of 68 times in the Bible (“Biblical Leprosy”). Although the term leprosy is used in modern translations of the Bible, there is debate over the scientific correctness of using this label to denote the illnesses described within the Bible (“Paradoxes and Misconceptions in Leprosy”). Nevertheless, descriptions of the disease can be traced back as early as 600 B.C. in writings from China, India, and Persia. Therefore, it is believed by many to be an ancient, extinct disease of old.

Shockingly, 150-250 Americans and 250,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with leprosy annually (“Armadillos”). Why then does leprosy go unnoticed by so many?

The answer to this question may again lie within the pages of the Bible. Within it, individuals described to have leprosy are depicted as shunned, outcasts, and undesirable. This stigma has stuck with the disease, which has enormous repercussions for public health programs regarding the treatment and control of leprosy (“Leprosy Stigma”).

…But what exactly is leprosy? And how does one contract the disease?

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is “a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the peripheral nerves, skin, upper respiratory tract, eyes, and nasal mucosa” (“What is Leprosy?”). The causative organism of the disease is the bacillus (rod-shaped) bacterium known as Mycobacterium leprae. Infected individuals may exhibit symptoms including, but not limited to, symmetric skin lesions, nodules, plaques, thickened dermis, congestion and nose bleeds, and nerve damage in the arms and legs (“What is Leprosy?”). Although transmission of the disease is not completely understood, it is believed to be spread via the respiratory system through nasal droplets and susceptibility to infection may be genetic.

Recent studies have revealed that leprosy may also be a zoonotic disease. In southern regions of the United States, there are many cases of leprosy among Americans with no previous exposure to foreign countries that contain the disease. Strangely, researchers have found a link between these cases and armadillos. These studies provide evidence for the transmission of leprosy from armadillos to humans. In fact, whole-genome resequencing of M. leprae from three American patients diagnosed with leprosy and a wild armadillo revealed the individuals possessed almost identical strands of the disease (“Probable Zoonotic Leprosy”).

Counties in which leprosy cases have been reported  since 1894 in the United Staes. The currently estimated range of armadillos is outlined in red. Yellow circles indicate approximate locations of wild armadillos infected with Mycobacterium leprae.
Counties in which leprosy cases have been reported since 1894 in the United Staes. The currently estimated range of armadillos is outlined in red. Yellow circles indicate approximate locations of wild armadillos infected with M. leprae (“Probable Zoonotic Leprosy”).

Therefore, contrary to popular belief, leprosy is still a major concern worldwide. The following are some common myths about leprosy and the truth that lies behind them:

  1. Leprosy is an extinct disease. Every two minutes someone in the world is diagnosed with leprosy, while many more go undiagnosed (“Leprosy Myths”). Approximately two million individuals are permanently disabled from the disease.
  2. Leprosy is incurable. This disease is 100% curable with a year-long multi-drug therapy treatment.
  3. Individuals with leprosy must be isolated. Once an individual begins treatment, he or she is no longer infectious.
  4. Leprosy causes your limbs to fall off. Leprosy primarily affects the nerves of the hands, feet, and face. Because of this, an infected individual may experience sensory and motor function loss. These losses may result in the inability to grasp objects, move digits, or blink (which may also result in blindness). Individuals who experience simple injuries with leprosy are prone to ulcers and infection, which could result in the shortening of fingers and toes. However, in no manner do these digits simply “fall off” (“Leprosy Myths”).

Ultimately, leprosy continues to persist as a highly stigmatized disease due to its historical and cultural mythology concerning its origins, as well as its physical appearance upon infected individuals such as disfigurement and its distinctive ulcers (“Leprosy Stigma”). These misconceptions have a disastrous effect upon the lives of individuals diagnosed with the disease including ostracism, unemployment, homelessness, et cetera (“Leprosy Stigma”). It is imperative that these myths and attitudes surrounding the disease are deconstructed in order to facilitate and provide the necessary care and treatment for individuals affected by leprosy.

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