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What is Leprosy?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Leprosy is a disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. Leprosy is often also referred to as Hansen's disease, after the discoverer of the bacterium. While in ancient history, the term leprosy has been used to denote a wide range of afflictions that cause boils, sores, or other skin diseases, in modern usage it refers exclusively to Hansen's disease as caused by Mycobacterium leprae. While the exact mode of transmission for leprosy is unknown, most people believe the bacterium passes through moisture exuded from the body.

There are two prevalent myths about leprosy, both of which are totally false. The first is that leprosy is incurable. In truth, leprosy is treatable by using a regimen of drugs. The first real treatments for leprosy, using a drug called dapsone, were established in the 1940s. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides this Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) to any country in need as part of their ongoing efforts to eliminate leprosy as a world health problem.

The second myth is that leprosy is extremely contagious. In actuality, most people are naturally immune to the disease, and for those that are not, transmission is still unlikely. It is estimated that more than 90% of the world's population possesses total immunity to leprosy. For those that are susceptible, close contact with infected persons, particularly those exhibiting strong signs of the disease, is recommended against. In no way, however, is transmission anywhere near as easy as most people believe -- in the popular mindset, simple contact with a leper virtually guarantees becoming infected oneself, a scenario that is highly unlikely, if not outright impossible.

Since the World Health Organization has made a determined effort to eliminate the threat of leprosy worldwide, incidence of the disease has been drastically reduced. Between 2003 and 2004 there was a reduction of more than 20% in new cases, down to just over 400,000 worldwide. Of the remaining cases of leprosy, the majority are found in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, with nearly 90% of all leprosy cases found in Nepal, Brazil, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Tanzania. India has proven a strong model for what education and disbursement of drugs can do to eliminate leprosy, with the number of cases in that country reduced greatly over just a few years.

One of the most difficult challenges for groups like the World Health Organization to overcome in their fight against leprosy is the deeply entrenched social stigma associated with the disease. In many cultures, leprosy is viewed as a divine punishment, and those afflicted are often ostracized from society as a whole. Leper colonies and asylums have existed in many countries for many hundreds of years as places for a group to ship off their lepers to and let them die of the disease in exile. While leper colonies primarily exist in developing nations such as the Philippines and India, in recent years the Japanese government has come under intense criticism for their own colonies.

In general, the global outlook on leprosy seems to be very favorable, with the World Health Organization's "Final Push" program making significant inroads, even in countries once thought to be virtually beyond assistance. If things continue as they are, leprosy may go the way of smallpox and polio, becoming nothing more than a historical artifact.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon308078 — On Dec 08, 2012

My Grandmother's sister and father have it. It is extremely horrible to have, but even so, don't let it change the way you see a person.

By anon117062 — On Oct 09, 2010

I am a south american woman who came to this country 25 years ago. Soon after the birth of my first child I had the most excruciating pain in my elbow and the doctor had to come one night and sedate me. He didn't know what was wrong with me but suspected that it was something serious and outside his expertise.

I ended up in hospital and the doctors could not find what was wrong with me. In the meantime, the problems which I had been suffering for a while with my nose were getting worse. My left nostril seemed to get blocked easily and I could not breathe, which frightened me as my mouth got so dry and felt salty. I went to see a nose and throat specialist and I had an exploratory operation where upon a 50p ulcer was found deep inside my nose which obviously was affecting my breathing.

I had some drops of glycerin to help soften the ulcer and ultimately it shrank. The results of that operation initially was thought to be tuberculosis. As tuberculosis is a contagious disease, I had to let people around me know so they could be x-rayed to check if they had been infected. Eventually my own x ray proved that not to be the case, but the doctor who had worked in Africa checked me over and he saw the red bumps in my legs and recognized my symptoms as Hansen's disease. The shock was tremendous but the support of that wonderful doctor, the heavy treatment of a combination of eight drugs including dapsone, clofazimine and others which I cannot remember plus the love and support of my husband and very close friends, did help me to overcome my fright of being rejected.

The funny thing is one of my British friends who is a Christian rejected me which was a very painful experience. well I was totally cured, had another child, had the opportunity to work, study, finished my degree and other qualifications and live a wonderful normal life. So to anyone who is reading this, please do not despair and get the treatment and live life to the full. God bless you all.

By anon106461 — On Aug 25, 2010

I was told that armadillos carry leprosy. Is this true? I was just wondering about this, because my son was kicking at one that was chasing at him one night in our daughter's yard. The next night my husband shot one,But we have no clue if it was the same one. So is this a myth, or just some old wives' tale?

By anon89187 — On Jun 09, 2010

what are the symptoms of leprosy? please help.

By anon75570 — On Apr 07, 2010

I have one of my friend who has the disease from last forty years. First he said he had taken Dapsone, and now some medicine clofazimine and ofloxacine. He at present is not disfigured, but it seems that he has sometimes getting reddish spots on his skin. Does it mean that he is not cured?

By anon30513 — On Apr 20, 2009

I want to ask about the myth about Leprosy. I have engaged with a girl and her grandfather, both of whom have this disease and some of our older people think that if we carry "Baaraat" then we will carry that disease to their home (her grandfather living separately and diagnosed).

So can you guide me? Can such a thing happen to us or it's just a myth?

Waiting for your reply..

(Very shameful to say, in 21st of century people thinks such a things...)

By mendocino — On Sep 25, 2008

Leprosy can be contracted only by physical contact with a leprosy patient. Since 1940's when the drugs were discovered to treat leprosy, the disease is not as ominous as it once was.

By anon8994 — On Feb 26, 2008

How can we prevent leprosy?

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