The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning that cases of leprosy are surging in Florida. The agency added that the central area of the state may have become an “endemic location” for the infectious, debilitating disease.
According to The Guardian, 159 new cases of leprosy were recorded in the U.S. in 2020, the most recent year data has been studied. Florida was among the top reporting states, said the CDC report issued Monday. Central Florida, in particular, accounted for 81% of cases reported in Florida and one-fifth of nationally reported cases. The CDC said that leprosy in the United States previously affected individuals who emigrated from leprosy-endemic areas, but 34% of new cases between 2015 and 2020 appeared to be locally acquired.
The agency warned that traveling to central Florida “even in the absence of other risk factors, should prompt consideration of leprosy in the appropriate clinical context.”
For example, a 54-year-old landscaper sought treatment for a painful and progressive skin rash that turned out to be leprosy. He lived in central Florida and hadn’t traveled domestically or internationally and hadn’t come into contact with immigrants from leprosy-endemic countries, says the CDC. He also said he had not had exposure to armadillos, who are known to carry the disease.
“The absence of traditional risk factors in many recent cases of leprosy in Florida, coupled with the high proportion of residents, like our patient, who spend a great deal of time outdoors, supports the investigation into environmental reservoirs as a potential source of transmission,” the CDC said.
According to CBS News, leprosy—also known as Hansen’s disease—is an age-old bacterial disease that affects the skin and nerves. It occurs when bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae attack the skin nerves, which can become swollen under the skin.
“This can cause the affected areas to lose the ability of sense and touch, which can lead to injuries, like cuts and burns.” the CDC website explains. In advanced cases, people can become disfigured and lose fingers and toes to the disease.
Leprosy is typically spread through extended, close contact with an untreated infected person. The CDC says that casual contact does not lead to infection — you can’t catch leprosy from shaking hands, hugging, or sitting next to someone during a meal or on the bus.
“It is not known exactly how Hansen’s disease spreads between people,” says the agency. “Scientists currently think it may happen when a person with Hansen’s disease coughs or sneezes, and a healthy person breathes in the droplets containing the bacteria.”
It may also be spread by armadillos that acquired leprosy many years ago when the U.S. had a leprosy colony in Carville, Louisiana, and those armadillos slowly moved to Texas, Louisiana and over to central Florida, says Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at Florida International University. The good news is that 90% of people tend to be naturally immune to the disease, says Marty.
Hansens’s disease is typically treated with a combination of two to three antibiotics and the treatment usually lasts between one to two years, says the CDC.
Early diagnosis is key, since treatment can cure the disease and prevent it from getting worse, says CBS News. Treatment does not always reverse nerve damage that may have already occurred, adds the CDC.
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