Diseases Home > Leprosy

Leprosy, which is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, is a complex infectious disease primarily affecting the skin, nerves, and mucous membranes. It can occur at any age; however, up to 20 percent of cases occur in children under the age of 10. Today, most people with leprosy are treated in the home and easily cured with antibiotics.

What Is Leprosy?

Leprosy is a complex infectious disease that is caused by bacteria. It is also known as Hansen's disease.

History of Leprosy

Although leprosy has been recognized as a disease for several thousands of years, Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen, a Norwegian scientist, first discovered the cause of leprosy in 1873. Considerable progress has been made over the last 40 years so that today the majority of cases can be treated without too much difficulty and most of the fears generated by the folklore surrounding it can be counteracted.
The disease has erroneously been associated with biblical leprosy, which scholars believe was actually a variety of skin diseases categorized under the term leprosy. Some of these conditions could have included:

What Causes It?

The cause of leprosy is an infection with the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. Mycobacterium leprae are part of the family Mycobacteriaceae. This is the same family as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). Mycobacterium leprae grow slowly and mainly affect the skin, nerves, and mucous membranes. It can also affect the:
  • Eyes
  • Muscles
  • Bones
  • Testes.
(Click Mycobacterium Leprae for more information about this bacteria.)
The illness can occur at any age, but cases of leprosy under age 1 are rare. Up to 20 percent of cases occur before the age of 10. In children, the disease occurs equally in males and females. In adults, it is twice as common in males as females.
(Click Cause of Leprosy for more information about how this disease is caused.)
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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