Named for Dr. Armauer Hansen of Norway, who first viewed the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, under a microscope in 1873, Hansen’s Disease is commonly known as leprosy the world over.
It is an Old World disease dating back to Biblical times. Early western explorers and settlers brought leprosy to the new world some 500 years ago.
Once here, the disease jumped species to the nine-banded armadillo. The armadillo and humans are the only natural carriers of the disease.
Some 100 to 200 new cases of leprosy are reported each year in the United States. Most cases are acquired abroad from human to human contact.
About 20 to 40 cases a year in the U.S. are not related to human contact. These cases most likely arise from close contact with wild armadillos.
Armadillos most comely range from Texas to the west, Florida to the South and South Carolina to the North and East. Armadillos are also seen in southeastern North Carolina and south eastern Colorado. To date, only five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico have reported armadillo-to-human transmission of Hansen’s Disease. Texas leads the country in new Hansen’s Disease chases related to armadillo contact. California leads the nation in total new cases, most from immigrants.
Transmission of the disease occurs with close human contact, often through coughing or sneezing. It is thought that handling or eating wild armadillos explains the animals’ transmission to humans.
Although no cases of transmission by armadillos has been confirmed in South Carolina, if you must come in contact with a wild armadillo, handle the animal with protective gloves and wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
It is thought that 95 percent of the world’s population is naturally resistant to the disease.
If acquired, Hansen’s Disease is easily treated with medications. Once started on the medications, a sufferer is no longer contagious in as little as a week.
Most patients who complete the course of medication are cured. A very small percentage of patients might become chronic carriers of the disease, but continued medication keeps them symptom free and noncontagious.
The United States continues research into the disease at the National Hansen’s Disease Clinical Center in Baton Rouge, La. Most new patients are treated at outpatient clinics, either state health clinic or private physicians.
If registered with the National Hansen’s Disease Clinical Center, patients receive medications and other services at no cost.
South Carolina is home to one of the oldest U.S. charities dedicated to the treatment of leprosy worldwide. The American Leprosy Missions, founded in 1906, is headquartered in Greenville.
If you want to learn more about this disease and its connection to the armadillo, visit www.leprosy.org.
Bill Stephens, PA-C, sees patients at both May River Dermatology locations, in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.