MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: leprosy

Area: Medicine
Posted By: Lynn Bry, MD/PhD Student, Molecular Microbiology
Date: Wed Dec 13 00:40:23 1995

Hi Ryan --

In short, yes, leprosy can be cured.

Leprosy is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, cousin of the organism that causes tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. M. leprae tends to infect the skin and underlying, peripheral nerves in a long-term/chronic infection. The body reacts in part to the organisms by forming granulomas which consist of certain immune cells in the body that try to contain the infection. These granulomas form the unsightly boils and skin lesions generally associated with leprosy. Large granulomas can spread to underlying bones causing the face, finger, arms and legs to become severely disfigured. The organism prefers to infect 'cooler' parts of the body, so the brain and internal organs are usually unaffected by the disease.

Before the causative agent of leprosy was discovered, lepers were often ostracized from society, forced to live and die in leper colonies without any treatment or help. Interestingly, it is this neglect that tended to contribute more to their demise than the actual disease itself. As with any disease, discovery of its cause has lead to a better understanding of the disease, and how to treat it.

The treatment of leprosy takes anywhere from 6 months to two years, and involves the use of a variety of antibiotics including sulfa drugs and two other powerful antibacterial drugs, rifampicin and clofazimine. The treament must be carried out over such a long period of time to make certain all the origanisms have been killed.

Though leprosy is considered an infectious disease, you needn't worry much about contracting it. Transmission of the disease has not been seen in the US or Europe for some time. Most cases occur in Africa or parts of the Far East where people live in squalid conditions and do not have access to appropriate medical care and treatment should they become infected with the organism.

-Lynn Bry

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