What Is Leprosy?

Leprosy is a disease that has been known since biblical times. It causes nerve damage and muscle weakness that can lead to deformities, crippling, blindness and isolation. Every two minutes someone is diagnosed with leprosy. Many Americans think leprosy no longer exists, but it still occurs in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Discover more about leprosy and the transforming ministry of American Leprosy Missions.

Some Statistics

  • More than 3 million people have disabilities as a result of leprosy
  • 75 children a day are diagnosed
  • India, Brazil and Indonesia have the most new cases of leprosy
  • 168 new cases were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2012

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes leprosy?

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.

Why is leprosy also called Hansen’s disease?

The medical name for leprosy is Hansen’s disease. Norwegian doctor Armauer Hansen was the first to view the bacteria that causes leprosy under a microscope in 1873.

What are the signs of leprosy?

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, the feet can 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 blindness. Bacteria entering the lining of the nose can cause the nose to collapse. Untreated, leprosy can cause deformity, crippling and blindness.

How do you catch leprosy?

The leprosy bacteria 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.

Do fingers and toes fall off when someone gets leprosy?

No. The bacteria attack nerve endings and destroy the body’s ability to feel pain. 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.

Our Impact

During its 108-year history, American Leprosy Missions has ministered to four million people in 42 countries around the world. Thanks to the support of people like you, we are able to CURE and CARE for people suffering with leprosy, and are committed to bringing an END to this dreaded disease. When God works in a community through American Leprosy Missions, bodies, hearts, minds and lives are transformed.

Early signs of leprosy sometimes include light patches on the skin. Babita was diagnosed with leprosy at an American Leprosy Missions-supported Lalgadh hospital in Nepal.

Babita, a little girl in Nepal, suffers from leprosy.

So What Can I Do?

Leprosy is still a cruel reality in the poorest communities around the globe. It causes crippling disabilities and victims often face difficult lives of shame and isolation. Join us in our mission to cure and care for children, men and women suffering from leprosy.

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