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Skeleton Of Pilgrim Sheds Light On How Leprosy Spread In Medieval Europe

27 January 2017, 6:53 am EST By Allan Adamson Tech Times
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Britain's red squirrels blighted by medieval strain of leprosy

Scientists have studied the remains of a young pilgrim who died of leprosy in the late 11th or early 12th century.

The medieval skeleton, which was found at a hospital cemetery in Winchester, England, offers clues to the history of leprosy particularly how the disease spread in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Pilgrims May Have Helped Spread Leprosy In Medieval Europe

Simon Roffey, from the University of Winchester, said that analysis of the remains hint of one of the ways the infectious disease may have arrived in England.

The young man, who traveled to Europe for a religious pilgrimage, may have contracted the disease on his travels albeit researchers are not sure if the man contracted the disease abroad or in Winchester and if he contracted the disease before or during his pilgrimage.

A common idea is that leprosy arrived in Europe with the Crusades, but archeological evidence hints that the leprosy hospital at Winchester already existed years before the Crusades, which means the pilgrim contracted the illness through another means. The hospital was the earliest-dated leprosy hospital in western Europe.

"From the 11th Century to the 14th Century in Western Europe we get an unprecedented rise in the foundation of leprosy hospitals," Roffey said. "This one individual gives us an insight into one of the reasons why this disease found its way into a medieval society." 

Researchers think that leprosy have been prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages due to the great pilgrimages of the period. Pilgrims would have traveled around, encountered people, and visited packed churches. They may have gotten the disease during their journeys across Europe and then helped spread the disease.

Roffey said that while the Crusades were a factor behind the spread of leprosy in the medieval period, other factors such as pilgrimage also had a part.

"We have examined the remains of a Pilgrim burial from St Mary Magdalen, Winchester. The individual was a young adult male, aged around 18-25 years at the time of death," researchers reported in their study published today in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases on Jan. 26.

"Geochemical isotopic analyses carried out on tooth enamel indicated that this individual was indeed not local to the Winchester region, although it was not possible to be more specific about their geographic origin."

Once An Incurable Disease

The disease, also known as Hansen's disease, is caused by slow multiplying bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae.

The infectious disease mainly affects the skin and may cause permanent damage to the eyes and nerves, but it is curable with multidrug therapy that the World Health Organization has made available for free since 1995. While it is not highly contagious, the disease can spread through droplets from the nose and mouth with frequent or close contact with infected individuals.

WHO figures show that in 2015, there were more than 211,000 new cases of leprosy. The figure may seem high, but the prevalence of the disease was worse back when there was still no cure for it. No treatment was available back in the Middle Ages. At the time, hospitals were places where infected individuals were looked after instead of being subjected to any medical treatment.

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