Increasing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that leprosy, commonly known as Hansen’s disease, is spreading endemic in the Southeast of the United States.  

According to a recent research letter from the CDC, 81% of cases recorded in Florida and nearly one-fifth of cases reported nationwide were from Central Florida.  159 new cases of Hansen’s disease were recorded in the US in 2020, according to the National Hansen’s Disease Program.

Leprosy has historically been rare in the United States; incidence peaked around 1983, and from the 1980s through 2000, there was a sharp decline in the annual number of recorded cases. However, studies indicate that since that time, leprosy incidence in the United States has been steadily increasing. In the southeastern states over the past ten years, the number of reported cases has more than doubled.

The state of Florida has previously made news for leprosy cases. Experts attributed the spread of diseases in 2015 to armadillos, which are abundant in the state and can carry the disease.

In light of recent data, here is what you should know about the illness:


Describe leprosy.

The ancient bacterial disease leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, damages the skin and nerves.

It happens when the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria attack the nerves, which can swell beneath the skin.

Cuts and burns may result from this because the affected areas may become less sensitive to touch and pain. The damaged skin typically changes color, according to the CDC website. In severe cases, the illness can cause disfigurement and the loss of fingers and toes.

Leprosy was once thought to be a highly contagious, fatal disease and the subject of biblical tales that portrayed it as a curse from God, but as our understanding of the malady has increased, we now know it is treatable.

Still, there is stigma associated with the illness.

In many locations where the disease is present, those who have it experience isolation and discrimination, the CDC notes.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 200,000 new cases are recorded annually in more than 120 countries, with Brazil, India, and Indonesia reporting the highest rates. The CDC estimates that roughly 150 Americans contract the disease each year.


Why does the disease occur?

Leprosy usually spreads through prolonged close contact with an infected individual who is not receiving treatment.

Casual contact does not cause infection; according to the CDC, you cannot contract leprosy through shaking hands, hugging, or sitting next to someone at a restaurant or on a bus.

“The precise mechanism through which Hansen’s illness transmits between people is unknown. According to the organization’s website, “Scientists presently believe it may occur when a person with Hansen’s illness coughs or sneezes, and a healthy person breaths in the droplets harboring the bacterium. Leprosy must be contracted through months of close, continuous contact with a person who is untreated.

Fortunately, 90% of individuals “tend to be naturally immune,” according to Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious diseases expert at Florida International University, who spoke with CBS Miami.

Only 10% of people can develop leprosy, and there is a wide range of possible symptoms, according to the speaker.  

She added that there are a number of explanations for why cases seem to be increasing.

People with leprosy moving to the United States from other countries is part of the issue, according to Marty. She also mentioned the armadillos’ function.

The issue is that leprosy-infected armadillos from when there was a leprosy colony in Carville, Louisiana, have gradually spread throughout Texas and Louisiana, and then elsewhere.

 they’ve crossed over to Central Florida, so we are seeing cases there as well,” the researcher said.


symptoms of the Disease

Because the bacteria grow slowly, symptoms of the disease take time to manifest. The CDC lists the following signs of leprosy on the skin:

Patches of discolored skin

Skin tumors

dry, stiff, or thick skin

Painless lumps or swelling on the cheeks or earlobes Painless ulcers on the bottoms of the feet

loss of eyelashes or brow hair

Nerve-related symptoms include:

Skin-affected areas become numb.

a weakened or paralyzed muscle

expandable nerves

Eye conditions that could result in blindness

If untreated, advanced symptoms could appear, such as:

Hands and feet that are paralyzed and are disabled

Resorption-related shortening of the toes and fingers

an infection on the soles of the feet


nasal deformity

Exists a medication to treat leprosy?

A combination of two to three antibiotics is commonly used to treat Hansen’s illness.

According to the CDC, “Treatment typically lasts between one and two years.” If the recommended course of treatment is followed, the condition can be cured.

Early detection is essential because, as the organization points out, while medication can heal the illness and stop it from growing worse, it cannot undo any nerve damage.


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