6 Strange Facts About Leprosy

6 Strange Facts About Leprosy


This x-ray of the hands of someone with leprosy was taken in Thailand. The disease causes deformities and contractures, seen here. (Image credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine/Contributed by Major Buker O.S.G. [Office of the Surgeon General])

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 bacterium Mycobacterium 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. [Top 10 Stigmatized Health Disorders]

Here are six strange facts about leprosy. 

Leprosy cases still occur, even in the U.S.

map, southeast, united states

(Image credit: Kent Weakley/Shutterstock.com)

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.

A collection of pills

(Image credit: Nenov Brothers Images/Shutterstock)

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.

A nine-banded armadillo

A nine-banded armadillo (Image credit: Arto Hakola/Shutterstock.com)

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.

immune system, immune cell, t cell, t-cell

(Image credit: royaltystockphoto.com/Shutterstock.com)

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. 

There's still a "leprosy colony" in the U.S. …


Kalawao Bay at Kalaupapa National Historical Park. (Image credit: J. Stephen Conn/flickr.)

…but people are no longer forced to live there. 

People with leprosy were once sent to live on Hawaii's Kalaupapa peninsula, on the island of Molokai, from 1866 to 1969, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Today, the area is a national park.

Over the hundred-year period, more than 8,000 people, most of whom were Hawaiian, died at Kalaupapa, the NPS says. Though people were free to leave the area starting in 1969, many remained because it had become home, according to CNN. Everyone who still lives there has been cured of the disease, according to the NPS.

As of September 2015, 16 former Hansen's disease patients still lived on the Kalaupapa peninsula, CNN reported

Today's leprosy is not the same kind as that in the Bible.


(Image credit: Bjoern Wylezich/Shutterstock.com)

Although leprosy is mentioned in the Bible, the references do not appear to describe the same disease people experience today.

Rather, the word "leprosy" in the Bible appears to have been translated from a Hebrew word that referred to general uncleanliness, and could be applied to people, clothing or even buildings, according to the Nepal Leprosy Trust.

When the word appears in the Bible in reference to people, it appears to refer to a wide range of skin conditions.

The NHDP notes that Hansen's disease is not the "leprosy of the Old Testament."

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.