Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is an infectious condition that’s been around since ancient times. It still exists today, but it can be cured when detected and treated early. Leprosy treatment involves multidrug therapy with antibiotics.
Leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae (my-co-bak-TEER-ee-um LEP-pray). It can affect your eyes, skin, mucous membranes and nerves, causing disfiguring sores and nerve damage. Leprosy has been around since ancient times. For centuries, people isolated and shunned those with leprosy because the disease wasn’t understood. Today, effective treatment is available, and there’s no need to quarantine people with leprosy.
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Yes. Although it’s rare, leprosy still exists today. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 208,000 people have leprosy (Hansen's disease) around the globe, with most cases found in Asia and Africa. In the United States, about 100 people receive a leprosy (Hansen's disease) diagnosis every year.
While leprosy can affect people of all ages, it’s most common in people aged five to 15 or those over 30. Research suggests that over 95% of people infected with Mycobacterium leprae don’t actually develop leprosy because their bodies fight off the infection.
There are three main types of leprosy, including:
The three main symptoms of leprosy (Hansen's disease) include:
Additionally, people with leprosy (Hansen's disease) may develop:
When the disease is in the advanced stages, it can cause:
Once infected with Mycobacterium leprae bacteria, it takes about three to five years for leprosy symptoms to appear. In some cases, it can even take up to two decades. For this reason, it’s difficult for health providers to determine when and where the infection took place.
Coming into close contact with the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae causes leprosy (Hansen's disease).
Although it is not highly contagious, leprosy (Hansen's disease) can spread from person to person. Experts don’t fully understand how the disease spreads from one person to another, but the bacterium is likely transmitted through airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. When bacterium is released into the environment, other people can inhale it. Hansen's disease can’t be spread through hugging, shaking hands, sitting next to an infected person or even sexual contact.
It’s important to note that most people have natural immunity to Mycobacterium leprae. In fact, only 5% of all people are truly vulnerable to leprosy (Hansen's disease).
Yes, some do. Mycobacterium leprae only grows in living hosts, including certain types of armadillos. Research has confirmed that a species of armadillo native to the southern United States and Mexico can carry leprosy (Hansen's disease) and spread it to humans.
If your healthcare provider thinks you might have Hansen's disease (leprosy), they’ll perform a skin biopsy. During this procedure, they’ll take a small sample of tissue and send it to a lab for analysis.
Yes. Thanks to modern medicine and the discovery of antibiotics, leprosy (Hansen's disease) is curable. Over the past 20 years, over 16 million people have beat the disease.
Leprosy (Hansen's disease) is treated with multidrug therapy (MDT), an approach that combines different types of antibiotics. In most cases, your healthcare provider will prescribe two to three different kinds of antibiotics at the same time. This helps prevent antibiotic resistance, which occurs when bacteria mutate (change) and fight off the antibiotic drugs that usually kill them. Common antibiotics used in the treatment of Hansen's disease include dapsone, rifampin and clofazimine.
Antibiotics can’t treat the nerve damage that may occur as a result of Hansen's disease. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs, such as steroids, to manage any nerve pain.
On average, leprosy (Hansen's disease) treatment takes one to two years to complete. During this time, your healthcare provider will monitor your progress.
While the chances of getting Hansen's disease are quite low, there are still things you can do to reduce your risk. For example, if you’re around an infected person, avoid contact with airborne droplets from their nose or mouth.
If you’ve been diagnosed with Hansen's disease (leprosy), it’s important to seek treatment immediately. The sooner you begin antibiotics, the less severe your symptoms will be. Your healthcare provider will find the right combination of antibiotics for your situation and they’ll continue to monitor you over the next couple of years.
Anytime you develop skin sores, numbness or muscle weakness, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can determine if your symptoms are due to leprosy or another health condition.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Leprosy (Hansen's disease) was shrouded in mystery for centuries. Today, we understand it as a curable disease. If you think you might have leprosy, visit your healthcare provider right away. Prompt treatment is your first step toward healing and a better quality of life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/18/2022.
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