Father Damien's Grave on Molokai

Father Damien's Grave
Credit: Flickr photo by DominusVobiscum

Leprosy in History

In ancient times lepers were shunned. Someone stricken with this unsightly disease would have to wear a bell around their necks to warn people they were nearby. Relegated to the margins of society, lepers lived on the outskirts of a town, because no one wanted them around.

Later, they were treated a little better. But, because of fear of contagion, they were sent to special colonies. The former leper colony on the island of Molokai in Hawaii is among the most famous. That's because a young priest named Father Damien DeVeuster was transferred there.

He volunteered to go, because he wanted to help the lepers by attending to the spiritual and physical needs. He established a Catholic parish and became their pastor. However, because his flock was so sick, he had to do a lot of the manual labor in this newly formed colony.

Leprosy is now treatable. It's also called Hansen's disease, named after the Norwegian physician who, in the late 1800's, discovered the bacterium that causes this illness. People who contract leprosy can now take a 6 to 12-month course of medication that can cure them of leprosy. If their condition is caught early enough, they are also spared devastating nerve damage.

Although we tend to think of leprosy as a thing of the past, it still exists, especially in the developing world. It's estimated that about 180,000, at any one time, suffer from leprosy, with the majority of cases arising in India.

The History of this Plague
Credit: Flickr photo by NatalieMaynor

Signs and Symptoms of Leprosy

Leprosy is a contagious disease, although, fortunately, it's fairly difficult to catch. Most people who have casual contact with a leper won't become infected. It's believed many people carry a natural immunity to the bacterium, known as Mybacterium laprea, which causes leprosy. No one knows exactly how leprosy passes from one person to another, although the bacteria is thought to be transmitted through the air, if an afflicted person coughs or sneezes.

Numbness in the extremities is a tell-tale sign of leprosy. This is caused by nerve damage. One of the most famous lepers was Father Damien, now a Catholic saint. He volunteered to go to Molokai, even though he was putting his own health at risk.

After working for years with the lepers, he accidentally put his foot into scalding hot water. Despite the visible burns, he realized he didn't feel any pain. He also realized he had contracted Hansen's disease. After great suffering, in which unsightly sores covered his body, Father Damien died in 1889 when he was just 49.

Doctors today may diagnose leprosy if they notice unusual skin lesions. In the United States, even though cases do exist, this condition is often diagnosed at a later stage, because it is not one of the first illnesses that physicians suspect. However, it is present in the population. In 2009, the last year figures were kept, about 200 Americans were found to have leprosy.

Because the disease is considered curable, there is no strict quarantine or isolation period. Early treatment of skin eruptions can prevent the more serious nerve damage.


Leprosy is Now Curable
Credit: Flickr photo by fabulousfabs

Lepers Suffering in India

In the United States we rarely hear about leprosy, because it's very rare, and, if it is discovered it's quickly treated. It's much more common in India, where a stigma still exists. People known to have leprosy are shunned, while others keep their diagnosis secret, according to a BBC news report.

If treatment is started before nerve damage sets in, recovery can commence without many of the devastating effects often associated with the disease. Although we often see pictures of lepers with missing fingers and toes, this is not caused by the bacterial infection itself, but, rather, from lack of sensation in the afflicted parts of the body. If someone loses feeling in their fingers or toes, they are very apt to repeatedly injure them. Sometimes, if the damage is extensive, amputation is the only recourse.

Given the implications of being diagnosed in India, some people are still hesitant to seek treatment, for fear of becoming an outcast. Sometimes, those who contract the disease are told to leave their family home. People in their community may start to avoid them. With no hope for employment, they are then forced to live in leper colonies. Right now, hundreds of leper colonies still exist in India.