Leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease, Hanseniasis or HD) is a chronic bacterial infection of the skin and superficial nerves. It may also involve the nose, eyes, throat and testicles. The organism that causes leprosy is called Mycobacterium leprae. The disease is common in parts of tropical and subtropical Asia, Africa, Central and South America, some Pacific countries, and in parts of the USA. In Australia, leprosy is now rarely seen. With the introduction of multi-drug therapy in the
early 1980s, the disease is now curable.
Leprosy is caused by the organism Mycobacteriumleprae. It is a difficult disease to transmit and has a long incubation period, which makes it difficult to determine where or when the disease was contracted. Children are more susceptible than adults to contracting the disease. Leprosy has two common forms, tuberculoid and lepromatous, and these have been further subdivided. Both forms produce lesions on the skin, but the lepromatous form is most severe, producing large disfiguring nodules. All forms of the disease eventually cause peripheral neurological damage (nerve damage in the extremities) manifested by sensory loss in the skin and muscle weakness. People with long-term leprosy may lose the use of their hands or feet due to repeated injury resulting from lack of sensation.
The symptoms exhibited by victims of leprosy vary, depending upon the classification of the condition, though both are caused by the same bacterium. The two main such classifications are lepromatous and tuberculoid cases, both of which represent different sides of a symptomatic spectrum, rather than separate disorders. Lepromatous leprosy is the more major form of the disease, much more generalized than tuberculoid, and often incorporates organs and peripheral nerves that are not usually associated with the milder form of the disease. Patients of lepromatous leprosy are home to a much greater host of bacteria, and have the potential to suffer severe and permanent nerve damage, if the condition goes untreated. Tumors may be prevalent upon the skin. Tuberculoid patients, however, experience only the appearance of minor, pale or reddish dry lesions which are usually flat or slightly raised, and which are insensitive to the touch.
Subtypes include borderline tuberculoid, midborderline, and borderline lepromatous, depending upon the extent and severity of the disorder. A single lesion indicative of potential leprosy is usually referred to as indeterminate leprosy, but has potential to progress to more serious forms of the condition. An alternative, more recent classification system simplifies the typification of leprosy into only Paucibacillary (PB) and Multibacillary (MB), the former being the less significant (tuberculoid) and the latter being the more serious (lepromatous). If treated for leprosy, your physician may use either set of terminology, likely depending upon his or her age.
Leprosy is a curable disease and treatment provided in the early stages averts disability. With minimal training, leprosy can be easily diagnosed on clinical signs alone. Treatment for leprosy involves taking several antibiotics for at least 6 months and up to several years. In most cases, a person will lose the ability to infect others within days to months of starting treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment of leprosy may prevent spread of the disease. People living in the same household as an infected person and anyone else who comes into close contact with an infected person should be examined by a doctor and continue to be examined each year for at least five years.