Leprosy History

  • Medical Author:
    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.

  • Medical Editor: Steven Doerr, MD
    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.

What is leprosy?

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is a curable, chronic bacterial infection that predominately affects the skin, nerves, and membranes in the upper airway.

According to the National Hansen's Disease (Leprosy) Program, there are approximately 6,500 cases of leprosy in the United States and only about half currently need to take medications. Virtually all of these cases were acquired outside the country.

The World Health Organization’ s official figures from 138 countries from six WHO regions show the global registered prevalence of leprosy was about 176,000 cases at the end of 2015. During the same year, about 212,000 new cases were reported.

Despite the fact that leprosy is curable with medications, the disease continues to exist because it is difficult to deliver effective medications to remote areas or regions with unstable political situations. Treatment must be taken in pill form for months to years, leading to problems with patient compliance and inconsistent access.

What is the history of leprosy?

Leprosy is associated with an affliction found in many ancient civilizations, including biblical accounts where the term leprosy was used to describe a wide variety of incurable skin conditions, most of which do not appear to have been leprosy.

Throughout history, a diagnosis (or misdiagnosis) of leprosy was considered to be an incredible misfortune or even a curse. Fear of the disease, which was recognized to be contagious, led to shunning of afflicted individuals. In the Middle Ages, those designated as lepers were required to wear identifying clothes and to warn people who approached them, sometimes by using special rattles. In the United States, leper colonies or leper houses were created to segregate infected individuals. One leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai was a location used to transport suspected lepers. A Belgian priest, Father Damien de Veuster, made it his mission to care for these individuals. The island remains inhabited today but no longer houses infected individuals.

Although unjustified, the stigma associated with leprosy continues to exist despite the existence of curative therapy and the very low risk of contagion. Thus, many experts now prefer the term Hansen's disease (named after Gerhard Hansen who first described the bacterial cause of leprosy in 1873) to describe and refer to modern leprosy.

Medically reveiwed by Robert Cox, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Infectious Disease


Longo, D.L., et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2011.

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