Father Damien was a Roman Catholic missionary who helped lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and also died of the disease.
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Leprosy, sometimes known as Hansen's disease, is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, an aerobic, acid fast, rod-shaped mycobacterium. The modern term for the disease is named after the discoverer of the bacterium, Gerhard Armauer Hansen. more...

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Sufferers of Hansen's disease have historically been known as lepers, however this term is falling into disuse as a result of the diminishing number of leprosy patients and the pejorative connotations of the term. In fact the term now that is most widely accepted among people and agencies working in the field of leprosy is 'people affected by leprosy'. The terms "leprosy" and "lepers" can also lead to public misunderstanding because the Bible uses these terms in reference to a wide range of skin conditions other than Hansen's disease.

Historically, leprosy was an incurable and disfiguring disease. Lepers were shunned and sequestered in leper colonies. Today, leprosy is easily curable by multidrug antibiotic therapy. The main challenges in the eradication of Hansen's disease is in reaching populations that have not yet received multidrug therapy services, improving detection of the disease, and providing patients with high-quality services and affordable drugs.

Other than humans, the only animals known to be susceptible to leprosy are the armadillo, mangabe monkeys, rabbits, and mice (on their footpads).


Hansen's disease has been recognized as a problem since the beginning of recorded history. It has been reported as early as 1350 BC in Egypt. "The oldest recorded disease" or "the oldest known disease" is a title given to this disease , as well as arthritis , gout , anthrax , schistosomiasis , and many other diseases. Lepers have frequently lived on the edge of society, and the disease was believed for a long time to have been caused by a divine (or demonic) curse or punishment. However, in the Middle Ages it was believed that lepers are cursed by humans, but loved by God.

During the Middle Ages, it was believed that leprosy was highly contagious and could be spread by the glance of a leper or an unseen leper standing upwind of healthy people. Nowadays, it is known that leprosy is only weakly contagious.

Minorities like the Navarrese agotes or French cagots were accused of being lepers.

Clinical features

The disease is caused by a mycobacterium which multiplies very slowly and mainly affects the skin, nerves, and mucous membranes. The organism has never been grown in bacteriologic media or cell culture, but has been grown in mouse foot pads and more recently in nine-banded armadillos. It is related to M. tuberculosis, the mycobacterium that causes tuberculosis. The difficulty in culturing the organism appears to be due to the fact that the organism is an obligate intra-cellular parasite that lacks many necessary genes for independent survival. The complex and unique cell wall that makes mycobacterium family difficult to destroy is apparently also the reason for the extremely slow replication rate.

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Leprosy mistaken as sarcoidosis in large referral sarcoidosis clinic
From CHEST, 10/1/05 by Geneva B. Tatem

INTRODUCTION: Leprosy is a chronic granulomatous infection of the skin and peripheral nerves with Mycobacterium leprae. It can be difficult to distinguish from other granulomatous diseases, including sarcoidosis. This case describes lepromatous leprosy presenting as neuropathy and non-caseating granulomas of the skin presumed to be neuro-cutaneous sarcoidosis.

CASE PRESENTATION: A 34 year-old male from India with a five-year history of mononeuritis multiplex affecting the distal lower extremities and diffuse rash was referred to our sarcoidosis clinic for management of his presumed neuro-cutaneous sarcoidosis. Physical examination revealed multiple indurated erythematous plaques on the cheeks, forehead and left ear, as well as violaceous and hypopigmented patches on the bilateral upper and lower extremities. There was decreased sensation on the dorsum of both feet and lateral aspect of the left leg. Left cheek biopsy demonstrated noncaseating granuloma. Sural nerve biopsy revealed very prominent round cell infiltration of the endoneuria and epineurium. Skin smear was negative for acid-fast bacilli (AFB). Fite stain for Mycobacterium leprae was negative. Serum angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) level, vitamin D level, and urinary calcium were normal. Chest radiograph was normal, and pulmonary function tests revealed a mild restrictive pattern with a mild diffusion impairment. Prednisone was started with mild improvement of his neuropathy. Multiple attempts at weaning steroids caused worsening of his neuropathy, and steroid-sparing agents were added. His rash persisted despite 5 years of treatment with varying doses of prednisone and hydroxychloroquine. Repeat biopsy of his skin rash revealed multiple large nodular histiocytic infiltrates throughout the dermis, and Fite stain revealed numerous intact AFB, consistent with lepromatous leprosy. The patient was subsequently hospitalized at the National Hansen's Disease Programs Center in Louisiana and after additional skin biopsies the diagnosis of lepromatous leprosy was confirmed. Monthly rifampin and clofazimine as well as daily dapsone, clofazimine, thalidomide, and a slow prednisone taper were begun. One month after instituting this regimen, most of his skin lesions completely inverted. Despite therapy, however, his neuropathic symptoms have worsened.

DISCUSSIONS: The differential diagnosis of granulomatous disease is large, and definitive diagnosis can be difficult. The comprehensive initial evaluation of our patient revealed only non-caseating granulomas, and the diagnosis of sarcoidosis was presumed after exclusion of most alternate diagnoses. Tuberculoid leprosy was considered initially, but was excluded based on negative microbiology and serology. A caveat to the exclusion of tuberculoid leprosy is that although AFB smears and Fite stain are highly specific, they are also insensitive, being negative in at least 70% of all leprosy patients. As cell-mediated immunity decreases, there is gradual progression to lepromatous leprosy. The decreased cellular host response allows for proliferation of Mycobacterim leprae bacilli and a high bacillary load in skin lesions, which eventually yield positive AFB smear or Fite stain results. This is a case of tuberculoid leprosy that was presumed to be neuro-cutaneous sarcoid that progressed to lepromatous leprosy after many years of immunosuppression.

CONCLUSION: The initial presentation of our patient with noncaseating granulomatous patches of the skin and sensory loss, represented tuberculoid leprosy, which progressed to lepromatous leprosy after years of immunosuppression. Conversion to the latter form enabled the diagnosis to finally be made on biopsy. Our patient originated from an endemic area and presented years after leaving the region. Though leprosy is rare in the United States, this ease emphases the importance of recognizing the disease in appropriate populations. Clinicians need a heightened awareness in order to diagnose this disease, which can cause significant impairments if left untreated.


(1) Britton JW, Lockwood DN. Leprosy. The Lancet 2004;363:1209-19.

(2) Lockwood DN. Leprosy elimination: a virtual phenomenon or a reality? BMJ 2002; 324:1516-18.

DISCLOSURE: Geneva Tatem, None.

Geneva B. Tatem MD * Bashar Bash MD Zachary Q. Morris MD Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, MI

COPYRIGHT 2005 American College of Chest Physicians
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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