It is so hard to believe we are at the very end of January already. World Leprosy Day (also known as Hansen’s Disease) is January 31, so I wanted to share some information about the topic.
The last Sunday in January was chosen in1954 by French humanitarian Raoul Follereau as a tribute to the life of Mahatma Gandhi who had compassion for people afflicted with leprosy, one of the oldest recorded diseases in the world. World Leprosy Day aims to raise awareness and teach people about this ancient disease that it is easily curable today. While rare in the United States (fewer than 20,000 US cases per year), many people around the world continue to suffer from leprosy due to lack of access to basic medical care and continued stigma surrounding the illness.
Hansen’s Diseas (Leprosy) is Caused by Bacteria
Leprosy was renamed “Hansen’s Disease” (HD) after the Norwegian scientist Gerhard Henrik Amauer. Hansen discovered the bacterium that causes the infection in 1873. These particular bacteria grow at a very slow rate and could take up to 20 years to develop signs of infection. A person with leprosy may have large, discolored lesions on their body, as well as growths on the skin, thick or dry skin, painless ulcers on soles of feet, and other symptoms. Eventually, the disease could progress to have a negative effect on the nerves, limbs, and eyes if left untreated.
How Does Hansen’s Disease Spread?
Over the years, science has shown that leprosy does not spread as easily as it was once thought to. You cannot get leprosy from sitting beside someone with the disease on the bus or at a meal, or by shaking hands or hugging. It has also been found that a mother cannot pass the disease to her unborn baby during pregnancy, and it is not spread through sexual contact. Scientists do believe that it can be spread when a person with leprosy sneezes or coughs in the same direction as a person without the infection, but since the disease progresses at such a slow rate, it is often difficult to find the source of the infection itself.
Who is Affected by Leoprosy?
Leprosy only affects fewer than 20,000 people in the United States per year. It does seem to affect young children primarily, although it can affect anyone at any age. In 2016, close to 19,000 children were diagnosed, making the estimate roughly 50 per day. About 208,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the World Health Organization, most of them in Africa and Asia.
Although the disease is very rare, it is still important to bring awareness to the disease to help reduce the stigma and find appropriate resources for those who have been affected. You can help by sharing social media campaigns, attending community parades, and encouraging the local school districts to educate students.