Leprosy may conjure up images of lost limbs and isolated colonies, but the disease is actually much less extreme and completely treatable today.
The modern name for leprosy is Hansen’s disease; it’s caused by the bacteriumMycobacterium leprae. The disease causes skin lesions and can permanently damage a person’s nerves; however, it is a misconception that it causes people’s body parts to fall off.
Leprosy cases still occur, even in the U.S.
Although leprosy is often thought of as an ancient disease, people can still become infected with the bacteria that cause the disease.
Indeed, a case of leprosy was reported in a California schoolchild in September 2016, and several cases pop up each year across the southern United States, including in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
In 2014, there were 175 cases of leprosy reported in the U.S., according to the National Hansen’s Disease Program (NHDP). Typically, between 150 and 200 cases are reported each year, the NHDP says.
Leprosy is totally curable.
The isolation that once went hand in hand with a diagnosis of leprosy was devastating to patients. But today, the disease is easily treated with a combination of antibiotics.
However, treatment does take a long time to complete: Patients diagnosed with leprosy should expect to take antibiotics for six months to two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When a person starts taking antibiotics for leprosy, he or she will become noncontagious within a few days, according to the NHDP. This is because the medications quickly kill almost all of the leprosy-causing bacteria.The few that remain are not enough to make a person contagious, but if the treatment is stopped too early, these bacteria could reignite an infection.
The dead bacteria may stay in the body for several years, even after the treatment is finished, the NHDP says; the dead bacteria cause no risk for reinfection.
Armadillos can carry it.
One reason that leprosy cases may be more common in certain parts of the country has to do with a certain critter that lives in those areas: the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus).
Indeed, these armadillos can carry the bacteria that cause leprosy and pass the bacteria along to humans. Researchers think that humans first transmitted leprosy to armadillos, sometime in the past 500 years, and a study from 2011 confirmed that armadillos can pass it back to humans.
Lovers of other animals need not fear, however; armadillos are the only other animal besides humans known to get leprosy.
Most people are immune to it.
Yes, leprosy is contagious — people can become infected if they inhale the bacteria. However, one reason the disease is not widespread is that an estimated 95 percent of all humans are immune to the disease, according to the NHDP.