Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores andnerve damage in the arms and legs. The disease has been around since the beginning of time, often surrounded by terrifying, negative stigma and tales of leprosy patients being shunned as outcasts. At one time or another outbreaks of leprosy have affected, and panicked, people on every continent. The oldest civilizations of China, Egypt, and India feared leprosy was an incurable, mutilating, and contagious disease.
However, leprosy is actually not highly contagious. You can catch it only if you come into close and repeated contact with nose and mouth droplets from someone with untreated, severe leprosy. Children are more likely to get leprosy than adults.
Today, more than 200,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the World Health Organization, most of them in Africa and Asia. About 100 people are diagnosed with leprosy in the U.S. every year, mostly in the South, California, Hawaii, and some U.S. territories.
What Causes Leprosy?Leprosy is caused by a slow-growing type of bacteria called Mycobacteriumleprae(M. leprae).Leprosy is also known as Hansen's disease, after the scientist who discovered M. leprae in 1873.
What Are the Symptoms of Leprosy?Leprosy primarily affects the skin and the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, called the peripheral nerves. It may also strike the eyes and the thin tissue lining the inside of the nose.
The main symptom of leprosy is disfiguring skin sores, lumps, or bumps that do not go away after several weeks or months. The skin sores are pale-colored.
Nerve damage can lead to:
Loss of feeling in the arms and legs
It takes a very long time for symptoms to appear after coming into contact with the leprosy-causing bacteria. Some people do not develop symptoms until 20 or more years later. The time between contact with the bacteria and the appearance of symptoms is called the incubation period. Leprosy's long incubation period makes it very difficult for doctors to determine when and where a person with leprosy originally got sick.