Leprosy (Hansen's Disease)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is the history of leprosy (Hansen's disease)?

Unfortunately, the history of leprosy and its interaction with man is one of suffering and misunderstanding. The newest research suggests that at least as early as 4000 B.C. individuals had been infected with M. leprae, while the first known written reference to the disease was found on Egyptian papyrus in about 1550 B.C. The disease was well recognized in ancient China, Egypt, and India, and there are several references to the disease in the Bible. Because the disease was poorly understood, very disfiguring, slow to show symptoms, and had no known treatment, many cultures thought the disease was a curse or punishment from the gods. Consequently, leprosy was left to be "treated" by priests or holy men, not physicians.

Picture of a person with leprosy (Hansen's disease)
Picture of a person with leprosy (Hansen's disease)

Since the disease often appeared in family members, some people thought it was hereditary. Other people noted that if there was little or no contact with infected individuals, the disease did not infect others. Consequently, some cultures considered infected people (and occasionally their close relatives) as "unclean" or as "lepers" and ruled they could not associate with uninfected people. Often infected people had to wear special clothing and ring bells so uninfected people could avoid them.

The Romans and the Crusaders brought the disease to Europe, and the Europeans brought it to the Americas. In 1873, Dr. Hansen discovered bacteria in leprosy lesions, suggesting leprosy was an infectious disease, not a hereditary disease or a punishment from the gods. However, patients with the disease were still ostracized by many societies and cared for only at missions by religious personnel. Patients with leprosy were encouraged or forced to live in seclusion up to the 1940s, even in the U.S. (for example, the leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii, that was established by a priest, Father Damien and another colony established at Carville, La.), often because no effective treatments were available to patients at that time.

Because of Hansen's discovery of M. leprae, efforts were made to find treatments that would stop or eliminate M. leprae. In the early 1900s to about 1940, oil from Chaulmoogra nuts was used with questionable efficacy by injecting it into patients' skin. At Carville in 1941, promin, a sulfone drug, showed efficacy but required many painful injections. Dapsone pills were found to be effective in the 1950s, but soon (1960s-1970s), M. leprae developed resistance to dapsone. Fortunately, drug trials on the island of Malta in the 1970s showed that a three-drug combination (dapsone, rifampicin [Rifadin], and clofazimine [Lamprene]) was very effective in killing M. leprae. This multi-drug treatment (MDT) was recommended by the WHO in 1981 and remains, with minor changes, the therapy of choice. MDT, however, does not alter the damage done to an individual by M. leprae before MDT is started.

Currently, there are several areas (India, East Timor) of the world where the WHO and other agencies (for example, the Leprosy Mission) are working to decrease the number of clinical cases of leprosy and other diseases such as rabies and schistosomiasis that occur in remote regions. Although researchers hope to eliminate leprosy like smallpox, endemic (meaning prevalent or embedded in a region) leprosy makes complete eradication unlikely. In the U.S., leprosy has occurred infrequently but is considered endemic in Texas, Louisiana, Hawaii, and the U.S. Virgin Islands by some investigators.

Leprosy is often termed "Hansen's disease" by many clinicians in an attempt to have patients forgo the stigmas attached to being diagnosed with leprosy.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/15/2015
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