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Leprosy is for Real, but Highly Treatable

Those of you who are movie buffs (and, yes, we number in the millions) have most likely seen the 1959 version of the classic film Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston. For many of us, that flick marked our introduction to – and maybe to this day our only source on the subject -- of leprosy, a potentially debilitating disease.

Who can forget Judah Ben-Hur's two visits to the Valley of the Lepers, first to search for his afflicted mom and sister, and the second time to carry them out of there at the apparent imperilment of his own health? It was incredible filmmaking: you can essentially smell and breathe in the stench of rotting flesh emanating out of the rocky, barren colony that was home to dying cave dwellers. The disease of death polluted the Old Testament air, and it took a miracle from God to heal the mother and daughter.

Hollywood aside, leprosy, also known as Hansen's Disease, is a very-real deal, complete with the unshakeable stigma that for some has meant being ostracized from communities, not just in the movies but in real life. Case in point: Kalaupapa, Hawaii, an isolated peninsula attached to one of the state's smallest, least-populated islands, where many leprosy-afflicted people (or lepers, as they are referred to in Ben-Hur) in that state were exiled to. Records cited by The Atlantic in a 2015 article says that about 8,000 of the sufferers, mostly native Hawaiians, were yanked from their families and sent there starting in the 1860s and for another hundred years thereafter.

At the time of The Atlantic's story, 16 of those patients, between the ages of 73 to 92, were still alive. And six of those remain there voluntarily even though the quarantine was lifted in 1969. As reported by The Atlantic, "Many of Kalaupapa's patients forged paradoxical bonds with their isolated world. Many couldn't bear to leave it. It was the 'counterintuitive twinning of loneliness and community,' wrote The New York Times in 2008. 'All that dying and all of that living.'"

For centuries, leprosy/Hansen's disease was assumed to be transmittable through the air – get too close to a leper, it was believed, and you, too, could catch the alleged contagious disease just like you would the common cold, except these symptoms were more severe, and longer-lasting, than a stuffed-up nose and a feeling of malaise that hangs around several days.

According to webmd.com, leprosy "affects the skin and the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, called the peripheral nerves. It may also strike the eyes and the thin tissue lining the inside of the nose. The main symptom … is disfiguring skin sores, lumps or bumps that do not go away after several weeks or months. The skin sores are pale-colored." Other complications can include blindness or glaucoma, kidney failure, erectile dysfunction and infertility in men and muscle weakness leading to misshapen hands.

A diagnosis of leprosy, which is caused by a slow-growing bacteria known as Mycobacterium leprae, is tricky business. It is rare in most parts of the world, and the incubation period can encompass anywhere from five to 20 years. The World Health Organization estimates that about 180,000 individuals worldwide are infected, with about 100 new cases a year being reported in America. States where most of the cases of leprosy are clustered are California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Texas. Plus, children more so than adults are likely to be infected. It helps to have a strong immune system, which can be bolstered through nutritional supplements.

That brings us to armadillos and there is a connection here. Those funky-looking mammals, with their leathery, grooved, armor-like shells, look to be a better fit for any planet not named Earth. They may be an easy target for cartoonists, but there's nothing cuddly about them when it comes to spreading disease. The bad news about 'dillos: some of them carry leprosy, and through spitting, they can spread the disease to humans, even if that's not their primary intent. An outbreak of leprosy in Florida this year – nine people affected so far, as of May, according to Newsweek – is a reminder that the disease didn't die with the pharaohs or even the native Hawaiians at Kalaupapa.

The good news is that leprosy is highly treatable with physician-monitored use of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, most likely over an extended period of time lasting months, perhaps years in extreme cases, although early diagnosis and treatment reduces the chances of permanent disability. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services says people with leprosy can continue to work and perform their usual activities while under treatment.

But next time you spot an armadillo? Keep your distance.