What you need to know about: Hansen’s Disease
What is Hansen's Disease (HD)?
Hansen’s disease, erroneously associated with biblical leprosy, is a complex, chronic, infectious disease caused by a bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, which was discovered by Dr. Gerhard H.A. Hansen in Norway in 1873. This disproved theories that the disease was hereditary and made it possible to search for a cure. Because of the stigma associated with the word “leprosy”, the term Hansen’s Disease (named after the physician that discovered the bacillus), is frequently used today.
Leprosy? Does is still exist?
In 1994, the The World Health Organization estimated that there were 2.4 million cases of HD worldwide, with 1.7 million registered cases on treatment. The largest numbers of cases are in Southeast Asia and Central Africa, with smaller numbers in South and Central America.
Is HD/Leprosy in the United States? In Texas?
Yes. There are approximately 6,500 individuals with Hansen’s disease living in the United States. The largest number of cases in the U. S. live in California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, New York, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. About 200-250 newly diagnosed cases reported to the national registry each year.
How does HD spread? Can anyone get this disease?
Hansen’s Disease specialists believe that the bacteria is spread by way of the respiratory or air borne route. Approximately 95% of the world’s population has a natural protection against or resistance to the bacteria that causes HD. Persons with this resistance will not get HD if they are exposed. For unknown reasons, there are a few people (approximately 5% of the world’s population) who have little or no protection. The susceptible person can get the disease on exposure to an untreated person with Hansen’s disease.
How do I know if I have it?
Early signs or symptoms include: a rash on the trunk of the body and/or extremities; reddish or pale colored skin patches which do not itch and which may have lost some feeling; skin patches which get larger or do not go away, despite medical treatment; bumps and thickening of the skin, especially on the face, ears and the extremities; loss of feeling or weakness of the fingers or toes; a painful nerve or weak muscles of the lower arm or leg. Your doctor can make the diagnosis by doing a test called a biopsy.
Can leprosy be cured?
How is it treated?
This infection is treated with certain specific antibiotics. Treatment, which is generally with three drugs, takes from six months to two years. Treatment renders even the most severe cases non-infectious within a few days or weeks of treatment. Early treatment can prevent the disabilities traditionally associated with HD.
Is HD very infectious?
Even for the small percentage of people who have no protection from the germ that causes Hansen’s disease, it is still difficult to get HD. The disease does not spread easily and is not spread through casual contact. In most cases, there may be only one person in a family who develops this disease.
It is passed on during pregnancy or through sex?
HD is not passed on from a mother to her unborn baby. You also do not get it through sexual contact.
What effects does it have on the body?
The bacteria affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves. It causes dryness and stiffness of the skin. In some cases the affected nerves can swell, causing pain; or, there may be loss of feeling, and weakness in the muscles of the hands or feet. If left untreated, there can be progressive and permanent damage to the skin, limbs, and eyes. Early treatment can prevent these disabilities.
Will my fingers or toes fall off?
No. This is one of the myths about HD. Numbness in the hands and feet can cause injuries to the fingers and toes. If there is loss of feeling, the fingers and toes become more vulnerable to repeated injury and infection. Infection can lead to bone absorption, which can alter the appearance of the digit(s), making them shorter. However, they never just “fall off”. Early detection and treatment is key to avoiding these problems.
Can I continue to work?
A person with HD can continue to work and lead an active life.
Where is treatment available?
The Texas DSHS has a contract with the National Hansen’s Disease Program (offices located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana), to provide treatment for individuals in Texas. There are 4 clinic sites in Texas that are funded by this contract. For more information on Hansen’s disease and available services in Texas, please call 1-800-252-8239, press option 5. You can also contact the DSHS Hansen's Disease Program by fax at 512-458-7451.
If Hansen’s disease is curable, and not easily spread, why is there such a stigma attached to the disease?
The origins of the stigma are based on fear and the disease as it appeared hundreds of years ago. The stigma has been handed down from generation to generation in all parts of the world, in many cultural ways, including through figures of speech, art, religion and recently, movies and television. These images and information passed down from person to person, over time, are not consistent with the Hansen’s disease of today. Hansen’s disease has been and continues to be scientifically studied by expert and knowledgeable physicians, researchers and other health care professionals. It is one of many communicable diseases that are diagnosed and successfully treated in this day and age. This stigma, which continues to cause trauma and emotional pain, has no place in today’s society.