Tropical Diseases - Leprosy

More than 10 million people are victims of leprosy , an infectious disorder also known as Hansen's disease . Although leprosy is more common in tropical regions, where up to 10 percent of some population groups may be affected, the disease also occurs in several northern countries, including the United States, where the disease is found in coastal states from California through Texas and Louisiana, and from Florida to New York. Ancient medical writings indicate that leprosy was known in China and India about 3,000 years ago but did not spread to the eastern Mediterranean until A.D. 500 or 600. Thus, the disease described in the Bible as leprosy probably was not the same disease known today by that name.


The manifestations of leprosy resemble those of several other diseases, including syphilis, sarcoidosis, and vitiligo, a skin disease marked by patches where pigmentation has been lost. The lesions of leprosy, which may begin as pale or reddish areas of from one-half inch to three or four inches in diameter, appear on body surfaces where the temperature is cooler than other body areas. These cooler surfaces include the skin, nose and throat, eyes, and testicles. The early cosmetic symptoms are followed gradually by a loss of feeling in the affected areas because of involvement of the nerve endings in those tissues. At first the patient may notice a loss of ability to distinguish hot and cold sensations in the diseased area. Then there may be a loss of tactile sensation. Finally, there is a loss of pain sensation in the affected tissues.

A case of leprosy may progress into one of two major forms, tuber-culoid leprosy or lepromatous leprosy , or a combination of the two forms. The advanced symptoms can include more severe nerve damage and muscular atrophy with foot drop and contracted hands, plus damage to body areas from burns and injuries that are not felt but that can become infected. Damage to nose tissues can lead to breathing difficulties and speech problems. Crippling and blinding are not uncommon in untreated causes of leprosy, and death may occur as a result of secondary infections.

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