Leprosy exists in Florida? Here's what you should know
When you hear the term "leprosy," what do you think of?
For many, the first thing that comes to mind is some awful disease that occurred in Medieval times.
Lots of people are shocked to hear it still exists. They are even more shocked to hear there are patients walking around with it right now in our own community. The next time you're in public, you could be sitting near someone that has leprosy.
Not all patients have the same symptoms.
In a case from the Merritt Island/Port St. John area, the patient had an "unexplained rash" that would not go away.
One patient in the northern/central part of the county presented with a slightly discolored eczema-like rash that was lighter than normal skin. It was unresponsive to topical anti-fungals or topical steroids.
Another patient had a mysterious rash that resembled their eczema on the arms, but this time the affected areas were numb.
An elderly patient in southern Brevard had a stubborn rash that would not go away after being in the hospital for treatment of colon cancer and had used multiple topical over-the-counter and prescription creams for weeks.
Eventually, each of these patients needed to visit their dermatologist's office to find out what this rash was, what was causing it, and would it go away.
A thorough history of the rash was taken, including a look at what previous medications were used and the signs or symptoms experienced.
Next, a sample of the rash was taken by a biopsy.
The biopsy results for each of the aforementioned patients came back as Hansen’s disease, which is also known as leprosy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hansen’s Disease is a slow-growing bacteria referred to as Myobacterium leprae, which can affect the skin, eyes, nerves and nasal mucosa.
If caught early and treated, it can be cured.
The good news is that people can continue with activities of daily living such as going to work and being social during and after treatment.
More good news is that Hansen’s disease is rare and most people have a natural immunity to it.
In the past, a diagnosis of leprosy was devastating and feared to be contagious.
If it is left untreated, nerve damage may occur that can end with the hands and feet being crippled, paralysis or blindness.
Nobody knows the exact cause of the transmission of leprosy or why there are cases here in Brevard County.
It is not transmitted by sitting next to someone, hugging or shaking somebody’s hand.
There has been discussion and genetic studies done that state some armadillos are naturally infected with the bacteria that causes leprosy and it may be possible to spread the bacteria through contact with armadillos.
Even though they say the risk is low it would be wise not to have contact with armadillos.
Other signs or symptoms that may occur on the skin with leprosy may include: Loss of eyebrows or eyelashes, growths, rashes with discolored skin or stiff dry skin, numbness, stuffy nose or nosebleeds.
A one-to-two-year course of a combination of antibiotics usually cures the illness if full treatment is completed.
If a full course of antibiotics is not completed, the disease may come back from the bacteria growing again.
After only a few doses with prescribed antibiotics patients become non-infectious; therefore they do not need to be isolated from their friends and family.
The National Hansen’s Disease Program is part of the Health Resources & Services Administration and provides research and information about leprosy in the United States.
It is based about of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and helps to oversee clinics that diagnosis patients with leprosy by reaching out to medical professionals by doing consultations and accepting referrals.
Remember, most people are not susceptible to the bacteria that causes leprosy.
If you have an unexplained rash that does not go away, see your dermatologist. They will help get you the treatment you need.
Susan Hammerling-Hodgers, a Member of the National Psoriasis Foundation, is a PA-C (Certified Physician Assistant) and MPAS (Master of Physician Assistant Studies) and works at Brevard Skin and Cancer at the Merritt Island and Palm Bay offices.
This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.