Leprosy May Be Endemic in Central Florida

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Leprosy is on the rise in Florida, according to the CDC.

In a recent research report, the CDC has cautioned of increasing rates of leprosy in Florida. With no traditional risk factors found and no evidence of animal-to-person transfer, the report concludes that Central Florida may be an endemic location for leprosy.

Rates of leprosy in the U.S. have peaked before back in the 1980s, but fell consistently all the way up until the 2000s.

“However, since then, reports demonstrate a gradual increase in the incidence of leprosy in the United States,” the CDC says.

Historically, most cases in the U.S. have been the result of immigration from an area where the disease is endemic. This most recent report, however, shows that 34% of Florida cases from 2015-2020 were locally acquired cases. Considering the body of evidence, the CDC has concluded that leprosy may be endemic to Florida.

That means that the disease may now regularly occur in Florida, particularly in Central Florida.

Central Florida accounted for almost 20% of all leprosy cases in the United States, and 81% of all Florida cases.

Signs and Symptoms

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a bacteria-caused infection that primarily effects the skin, eyes, nose and nerves. It is characterized by light or red skin patches, growths on the skin and painless lumps or swelling on the face and eyes. These growths and patches also result in skin numbness due to nerve damage.

The bacteria is so slow growing that it can take months or even years to display signs and symptoms. Once initial signs appear, it can take weeks to months for the disease to progress.

Early Signs Include:

  • Slightly red or pale patches of skin associated with loss of sensation
  • Loss of eyebrows or eyelashes
  • Stiff or dry skin patches
  • Loss of feeling in hands and feet
  • Chronic stuffy nose or nosebleeds

Advanced Symptoms:

  • Paralysis of hands and feet
  • Chronic, non-healing ulcers
  • Blindness
  • Growths (nodules) on skin
  • Nose disfigurement

What We Know About Leprosy

Most people are naturally immune to Hansen’s disease, about 95% of us, according to the CDC. It’s likely the tight-knit quarters of city living that helped us get to such a high rate of immunity over hundreds and hundreds of years.

Of course, that’s still hundreds of millions of people that are at risk for contracting leprosy.

You’re likely familiar with the term in a historical or even Biblical sense, as leprosy has been around for a long time. In 2009, a skeleton bearing the evidence of living with leprosy was discovered in India to be over 4,000 years old. That said, when we think about the term ‘leprosy’ in history, we’re probably talking about almost any disease that had skin symptoms.

What we know of today as leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, showed up in full force during the Middle Ages in Europe. It eventually became so common that as many as one in 30 people had the bacteria. While the bacteria was widespread, it took years for advanced signs to develop. As a result, very little about the disease was understood.

Myths and misinformation was rife, and showing signs of leprosy was once a one-way ticket to life-long debilitation and alienation from your community. To be a ‘leper’ meant to be an outcast.

Though this disease was once incredibly feared, we now know it’s not as easily transmissible and we have developed effective treatment that can even cure leprosy. If caught early, leprosy can be completely cured without disability within 6-12 months. According to the Cleveland Clinic, in the past two decades, 16 million people have been cured of leprosy.

That said, if left untreated, advanced nerve damage can lead to paralysis of the hands and feet, as well as blindness.

How Do You Contract Leprosy?

According to the CDC, we still don’t know exactly how the disease is transmitted between people. We know that it isn’t sexually transmitted, can’t be passed from a pregnant mother to child, and that it takes a substantial amount of time to catch it from another person.

“Prolonged, close contact with someone with untreated leprosy over many months is needed to catch the disease,” the CDC says. That means you can’t get it from sitting next to someone on the bus or shaking hands.

The reason we know so little about how leprosy is transmitted has to do with just how slowly the bacteria responsible develop. That makes tracking the disease difficult, which is why the CDC has requested travel to Florida be considered when conducting contract tracing.

In the Southern United States, some armadillos are naturally infected with the same bacteria that causes leprosy. Transmission between animals and humans is extremely rare, but the CDC still recommends caution. Again, in Florida’s leprosy cases, there is no evidence of zoonotic transmission or any other traditional risk factors for the disease. That means that the increase in cases is still a mystery.

To keep yourself safe, the CDC recommends avoiding close contact with anyone known to have leprosy, particularly family members as natural immunity is hereditary.

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