Jacobson, Robert Department of Health and Human Services, Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center, Carville, Louisiana.
Last reviewed:August 2020
- Symptoms and manifestations
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A chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae that primarily affects the skin and peripheral nerves and, to a lesser extent, the eyes and mucous membranes. Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, has been known for thousands of years. It afflicts at least 3 million people worldwide and is most common in developing countries. There are approximately 200 new cases yearly in the United States, with 90% of them occurring in immigrants who came from countries where leprosy is endemic. The pathogen, M. leprae, has never been cultured in artificial media, but it can be grown in the mouse (in the footpad) and the nine-banded armadillo, among other animals. About 2–3% of armadillos in the wild in the southern United States harbor the infection. The epidemiology of leprosy is not fully understood, but transmission probably takes place by the respiratory route. The bacillus grows very slowly, and the incubation period is usually 3–5 years. Less than 5% of any population is susceptible, and these individuals have a deficient cell-mediated immune response specifically to M. leprae, which may be genetic in origin. Epidemics have occurred, but are rare. Historically, considerable stigma has been attached to the disease and it remains a real, although diminishing, problem. See also: Armadillo; Bacteria; Epidemiology; Infectious disease; Medical bacteriology; Mycobacterial diseases
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