Leprosy is an infectious disease that has been known since biblical times. It is characterized by disfiguring skin sores, nerve damage, and progressive debilitation.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Leprosy is caused by the organism Mycobacteriumleprae. It is not very contagious (difficult to transmit) and has a long incubation period (time before symptoms appear), which makes it difficult to determine where or when the disease was contracted. Children are more susceptible than adults to contracting the disease.
Leprosy has two common forms, tuberculoid and lepromatous, and these have been further subdivided. Both forms produce sores on the skin, but the lepromatous form is most severe, producing large, disfiguring lumps and bumps ( nodules).
All forms of the disease eventually cause nerve damage in the arms and legs, which causes sensory loss in the skin and muscle weakness. People with long-term leprosy may lose the use of their hands or feet due to repeated injury resulting from lack of sensation.
Leprosy is common in many countries worldwide, and in temperate, tropical, and subtropical climates. Approximately 100 cases per year are diagnosed in the United States. Most cases are limited to the South, California, Hawaii, and U.S. island possessions.
Effective medications exist, and isolation of victims in "leper colonies" is unnecessary. The emergence of drug-resistant Mycobacterium leprae, as well as increased numbers of cases worldwide, has led to global concern about this disease.
Signs and tests
A number of different antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria that cause the disease.
Aspirin, prednisone, or thalidomide are used to control inflammation.
Early recognition is important. Early treatment limits damage by the disease, renders the person noninfectious (you can't catch the disease from them), and allows for a normal lifestyle.
- Cosmetic disfigurement
- Permanent nerve damage
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of leprosy, especially if you've had contact with someone who has the disease. Cases of leprosy in the United States need to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prevention consists of avoiding close physical contact with untreated people. People on long-term medication become noninfectious (they do not transmit the organism that causes the disease).
Ernst JD. Leprosy (Hansen's disease). In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier. 2007: chap 347.
Kumar B, Dogra S. Leprosy. In: Rakel RE, Bope ET, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2008. 60th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008: chap 25.
Reviewed By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.