Q: What causes leprosy?
A: A germ, or bacteria, called Mycobacterium leprae. It causes an infection that affects the skin, destroys nerves and can also cause problems in the eyes and nose.
Q: Why is leprosy also called Hansen’s disease?
A: The medical name for leprosy is Hansen’s disease. Norwegian doctor Armauer Hansen was the first to view the bacillus under a microscope in 1873.
Q: Do fingers and toes fall off when someone gets leprosy?
A: No. The bacteria attack nerve endings and destroy the body’s ability to feel pain and injury. Without feeling pain, people injure themselves and the injuries can become infected, resulting in tissue loss. Fingers and toes become shortened and deformed as the cartilage is absorbed into the body. Repeated injury and infection of numb areas in the fingers or toes can cause the bones to shorten. The tissues around them shrink, making them short.
Q: What are the signs of leprosy?
A: Early signs include spots on the skin that may be slightly red, darker or lighter than normal skin. The spots may also become numb and have lost hair. Often they appear on the arms, legs or back. Sometimes the only sign may be numbness in a finger or toe. If left untreated, hands can become numb and small muscles are paralyzed, leading to curling of the fingers and thumb. When leprosy attacks nerves in the legs, it interrupts communication of sensation in the feet. The feet can then be damaged by untended wounds and infection. If the facial nerve is affected, a person loses the blinking reflex of the eye, which can eventually lead to dryness, ulceration and blindness. Bacteria entering the mucous lining of the nose can lead to internal damage and scarring which in time causes the nose to collapse. Untreated, leprosy can cause deformity, crippling and blindness.
Q: How do you catch leprosy?
A: M. leprae is transmitted primarily through coughing and sneezing. In most cases, it is spread through long-term contact with a person who has the disease but has not been treated. Scientists don’t fully understand how leprosy is spread.
Q: Is leprosy very contagious?
A: Most people will never develop the disease even if they are exposed to the bacteria. Approximately 95% of the world population has a natural immunity to leprosy.
Q: How is leprosy treated?
A: Leprosy can be cured with multi-drug therapy (MDT), a combination of three antibiotics: rifampin, clofazimine and dapsone. Treatment can take from six months to a year, sometimes longer. People are no longer contagious after about one week of MDT.
Q: What side effects do the medications have?
A: Dapsone: Some people may have a mild anemia. Very rarely, other blood problems have been reported. Rifampin: Sometimes it will cause abnormal liver tests, but the problem clears when the medication is stopped. It may cause a harmless orange color in the urine, sweat or tears. Clofazimine: It has virtually no side effects except some darkening of the skin which slowly fades when the medication is stopped.
Q: Is there leprosy in the U.S.?
A: Approximately 5,000 people in the U.S. are cured but suffer from the effects of leprosy and continue to receive care through outpatient clinics and private physicians. Approximately 150 people are diagnosed with leprosy each year in the U.S.