Leprosy Outbreak in Florida: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

The bacterium that causes leprosy has existed since ancient times, but the infectious disease might return to Florida. According to a new research letter published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, cases of leprosy – also known as Hansen’s disease – have increased significantly in the southeast United States over the last decade. In 2022 alone, the number of reported cases doubled in the region, and central Florida accounts for nearly one-fifth of all cases in the nation. The CDC says it is possible that the region could now be endemic to the disease, meaning it is a constant presence rather than a rare occurrence.

Health experts fear that as more people become exposed to the bacteria that cause the condition, it may lead to more outbreaks. Infections can be spread through prolonged contact, but the CDC says that is not as common as it was in the past due to improved sanitation and antibiotic drugs. However, the CDC warns that untreated cases of leprosy can be fatal, and patients should be closely monitored for symptoms like skin lesions, loss of senses in the hands and feet, and thickening of the nose and eyes.

Leprosy is a centuries-old disease once stigmatized and often isolated from the community. However, doctors say it is easily treatable today, and about 95% of the world’s population has natural immunity.

Historically, a diagnosis of leprosy often meant years of confinement in squalid conditions. However, the CDC says it is now possible to cure most infected people with just one dose of a multi-drug regimen that includes antibiotics and Dapsone.

It needs to be clarified precisely what is behind the increase in disease cases in the southeastern United States. However, a study published in 2022 found that most patients did not have a history of travel abroad or immigration from countries with high rates of leprosy. A University of Central Florida dermatology professor, Rajiv Nathoo, tells KNX In Depth that it could be because the rash patients are being seen at more medical centers and that they have access to better care. He also points out that there is evidence that people can contract the disease by interacting with nine-banded armadillos, as the barrel-shaped creatures are naturally infected with the bacterium that causes leprosy. He says that because people are trapping and killing the animals for food, it could create aerosols that can be inhaled by someone who is not immune and lead to leprosy. Infections can also be spread through coughing or sneezing and catching the droplets.

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