Cases of leprosy are rising in the US, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now suggest the historically rare disease has become endemic in the Southeast.
in one research letter The CDC reported last month that cases of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, have more than doubled in the southeastern United States over the past decade. Of all the cases reported statewide, nearly a fifth occurred in central Florida, where 81% of the state’s cases were reported, according to the CDC.
The federal health agency recommended that doctors consider travel to Florida a potential risk factor for infection, even if a person has no other risk factors for the disease.
“Travel to this area, even in the absence of other risk factors, should prompt consideration of leprosy in the appropriate clinical context,” the letter reads.
It is not clear why leprosy cases are increasing. The CDC did not uncover any classic risk factors in the course of contract follow-up in the infected patients examined.
It is also not fully understood how the disease is transmitted. It can take years for an infected person to show symptoms, the agency said.
Prolonged human-to-human contact via respiratory droplets is the most well-known mode of transmission of leprosy. The disease can also be spread through contact with animals, particularly armadillos, although there have been several cases in central Florida where there has been no evidence of infection from an animal.
In the past, people infected with leprosy in the US usually traveled from leprosy-endemic areas. The disease is widespread some countries in Africa, Asia and South America.
However, the CDC said about 34% of infections reported in the US from 2015 to 2020 appeared to have been acquired locally in Florida first reported cases According to the Florida Department of Health, the disease appeared in 1921.
The CDC cited a 54-year-old Florida man who was recently diagnosed with the disease after developing a painful rash on his face and body as an example of someone who had no known risk of infection.
“He denied any domestic or international travel, any contact with armadillos, prolonged contact with immigrants from countries where leprosy is endemic, or links to anyone known to have leprosy. He has lived in central Florida all his life, works in landscaping and spends a lot of time outdoors,” the CDC said.
The CDC concluded that environmental reservoirs in Florida are worth investigating as a potential source of transmission. It also said more doctors should be educated on how to recognize and report the disease.
“By increasing efforts by local physicians to report incidence and supporting further research to assess transmission routes, appropriate efforts can be made to identify and reduce the spread of the disease,” the letter reads.
The Florida Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Leprosy can be cured with prolonged treatment. However, if left untreated, it can lead to crippling of the hands and feet, paralysis and blindness. According to the CDC, as many as 2 million people worldwide are permanently disabled as a result of the disease.