Leprosy (Hansen's Disease)

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Leprosy (Hansen's disease) facts

  • Leprosy is a slowly developing, progressive disease that damages the skin and nervous system.
  • Leprosy is caused by an infection with Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis bacteria.
  • Early symptoms begin in cooler areas of the body and include loss of sensation.
  • Signs of leprosy are painless ulcers, skin lesions of hypopigmented macules (flat, pale areas of skin), and eye damage (dryness, reduced blinking). Later, large ulcerations, loss of digits, skin nodules, and facial disfigurement may develop.
  • The infection is thought to be spread person to person by nasal secretions or droplets. Leprosy is rarely transmitted from chimpanzees, mangabey monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos to humans by droplets or direct contact.
  • Susceptibility to getting leprosy may be due to certain human genes.
  • Antibiotics are used in the treatment of leprosy.

What is leprosy?

Leprosy is a disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, which 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 historically 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, similar to tuberculosis, because it produces inflammatory nodules (granulomas) in the skin and nerves over time.


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