What Is Leprosy?
Leprosy is an ancient disease caused by a bacteria (Mycobacterium leprae) that is similar to the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. Symptoms include light red or purplish spots on the skin; yellow or brown protuberances (lumps) on the eyes, nose, and throat; and numbness in the arms and legs. Although the disease originated in India, it was introduced into Europe in the fifth century B.C., probably by soldiers under the direction of the Persian ruler Xerxes (c. 519–465 B.C.). By the 1100s leprosy had reached epidemic proportions in Western Europe, where it killed commoner and nobleman alike (including the Portuguese king Afonso II and Scottish king Robert I). European explorers and settlers brought leprosy with them to the New World (the European term for North and South America), where it was previously unknown. Without effective treatment, lepers, who were often disfigured, were feared and shunned. Most lepers were forced to live in leper colonies established on remote islands. In 1874 Norwegian physician Henrik Hansen identified the leprosy bacteria and the disease was afterward called Hansen's disease. Present-day drug therapies can control but not cure leprosy. Because leprosy is the least contagious of all contagious diseases, most people are treated outside of special institutions. An estimated 1,150,000 people worldwide suffer from the disease. About 650 people with leprosy live in the United States, and about 160 new cases are reported each year. Scientists are in the process of developing a vaccine that will be able to protect the 5 percent of the world's population that is susceptible to the disease. In 1999 the U.S. government closed the only leprosy hospital on the U.S. mainland, in Carville, Louisiana.
Further Information: Bai, Matt. "The Only World They Know: The Government Is Closing the Only Mainland U.S. Leprosy Hospital—Whether the Residents Want It or Not." Newsweek. March 29, 1999, p. 68; Lechat, Michel F., and S. S. Gokhale. "History of a Disease." World Health. May-June, 1996, pp. 8–10.