Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, has plagued humanity for more than 4,000 years. A terrible illness with an eerie reputation, leprosy was deeply and fatally misunderstood and untreatable until the mid-20th century. While new leprosy cases do occur each year, the proliferation of the disease has been overwhelmingly reduced with the introduction of extremely efficient drug therapies.
A chronic and debilitating illness, Hansen's disease has a tragic history marked not only by a long search for effective treatment, but also indelibly tainted by human cruelty. Though not a highly contagious illness, the disease was long viewed as virulent, or even evil, by many early communities, resulting in total isolation of victims from society. Moreover, the tissue-consuming nature of the disease left most advanced-stage victims unable to care for themselves, leading to untold deaths brought by hunger and neglect, as well as by the disease itself.
The turning point for leprosy came in the 1940s, when an effective drug therapy, known as dapsone, became available. Though the bacteria known to cause the disease had been isolated in the 19th century, science had been unable to develop an effective treatment of the disease until more than half a century later. Even the revolutionary invention of dapsone would prove unable to eradicate the disease fully, as drug-resistant strains of the bacteria quickly evolved. Today, leprosy is typically treated through a long course that involves several different drugs, which has proved an overwhelming success. At the turn of the 21st century, no fully universal vaccine exists against the disease.
Leprosy still exists today, and remains a medical major concern in certain regions. Though it can spring up in any part of the world, most infections are concentrated in Africa, southeast Asia, and parts of South America. Since drug therapy has proved so effective, the fight against leprosy now focuses on education and access to treatment, particularly in areas where infection is an endemic problem. Many of the areas where leprosy abounds do not have easy access to roads, let alone modern medical facilities. Moreover, people may not be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of the disease, which can lead to a fatal delay in treatment.
Access to leprosy treatment is a primary mission of many international health groups, including the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the late 20th century, the WHO and other affiliates have offered free treatment to any leprosy victim in endemic areas. Though the task of eliminating the disease continues to elude the medical community, effective treatment and education have brought astounding reductions in the rates of transmission and new cases.