Leprosy, known as Hansen's disease, still exists. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global registered prevalence of leprosy at the beginning of 2008 stood at 212,802 cases, while the number of new cases detected during 2007 was 254,525 (excluding the small number of cases in Europe).
Leprosy is a disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae that causes damage to the skin and the peripheral nervous system. The disease develops slowly (from six months to 40 years!) and results in skin lesions and deformities, most often affecting the cooler places on the body (for example, eyes, nose, earlobes, hands, feet, and testicles). The skin lesions and deformities can be very disfiguring and are the reason that infected individuals were considered outcasts in many cultures. Although human-to-human transmission is the primary source of infection, three other species can carry and (rarely) transfer M. leprae to humans; chimpanzees, mangabey monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos. The disease is termed a chronic granulomatous disease because it produces inflammatory nodules (granulomas) in the skin and nerves over time
Leprosy Is Not Very Contagious
Modern medicine tells us that leprosy is spread when an untreated infected person coughs or sneezes (but not by sexual contact or pregnancy). However, leprosy is not very contagious; approximately 95% of people have natural immunity to the disease. People with leprosy who are treated with medication do not need to be isolated from society. Historically, people with leprosy were sent to 'leper colonies,' also called 'leprosariums,' on remote islands or in special hospitals.
•The National Hansen's Disease Museum
•The Global Project on the History of Leprosy
Signs and Symptoms of Leprosy
The earliest sign of leprosy is commonly a spot on the skin that may be slightly redder, darker, or lighter than the person's normal skin. The spot may lose feeling and hair. In some people, the only sign is numbness in a finger or toe.
If left untreated, leprosy can progress to cause serious effects on the body, including:
•Hands and feet - Leprosy bacteria attack the nerves in the hands and feet and cause them to become numb. A person may get cuts or burns on the numb parts and not know it, leading to infections which cause permanent damage. Fingers and toes may be lost to infection. Serious infections in the feet may require amputation. Paralysis may cause the fingers and toes to curl up permanently.