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Leprosy Cases Confirmed In Florida: Should We Blame The Armadillos?

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According to health officials, three new cases of leprosy have been confirmed in the last five months in Florida's Volusia County. Two of the cases are thought to have originated from armadillo contact as it is the only known animal carrier for the disease.

Also known as Hansen's disease, leprosy is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It is a rare condition because majority of people are immune to the bacteria that causes it, but leprosy may be transmitted through nose and mouth droplets and close contact with an individual already infected and has not undergone proper treatment.

M. leprae multiplies slowly in the body so an infection is not immediately apparent. In fact, incubation period can take anywhere between five and 20 years. Leprosy's long incubation period adds in the difficulty of positively determining what has led to the three cases in Volusia County.

Leprosy is highly curable, most especially when the disease is diagnosed early. Left on its own, however, it will lead to permanent and progressive damage to the eyes, limbs, nerves and skin. Multidrug therapy treatment has been available since 1995, leading to the global elimination of leprosy in 2000. Global elimination is defined as having a prevalence rate of less than one case for every 10,000 persons. Over the past 20 years, nearly 16 million patients diagnosed with leprosy have been cured.

The disease has been recorded as early as 600 B.C. in ancient civilizations in India, Egypt and China. While the multidrug therapy responsible for curing many cases was released in the 1990s, the first breakthrough in leprosy treatment was reported in the 1940s when dapsone, a drug, was developed. However, M. leprae developed a resistance for dapsone in the 1960s.

Leprosy has been wiped out in 119 countries where it was considered a public health threat in 1985. So far, resistance to the multidrug treatment has not been reported, allowing it to continue its work in curbing the disease.

Despite the rarity of leprosy cases, health officials must not be complacent, fully integrating treatment for the disease into general services to ensure ample care will be provided when needed. Self-reporting must also be encouraged by helping drive away the stigma the disease has. Again, the earlier leprosy is treated, the easier it will be to manage, making it likelier to be eliminated.

About 100 new cases of leprosy are reported in the United States each year, mostly in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and other southern states.

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