The other day I was watching an episode of National Geographic’s Taboo. It was the episode about outcasts. One of the segments was about modern lepers in India. There was a montage of interviews with random people on the streets of what I assumed were European/North American cities. You know, western, supposedly educated people. They asked the question: Would you touch a leper? The interviewees seemed horrified. One woman flatly states that she would never touch a leper because she knew leprosy was contagious.
This caused a deep sigh to start within me. Accompanied by a slow rolling of my eyes back into my head. The irrational fear that still exists today over a disease which has a cure, and which most humans are naturally immune to, annoyed me greatly. 2012 and we’re still cringing from lepers. How depressing. So I thought that an interesting exercise for myself would be to try to pick a common misconception/myth/urban legend and make an effort to debunk it. Or at least scrape together some information about it in what is hopefully an easy to digest manner. I’m going to call these posts: ‘Mythic Mondays’ because I’m all about alliteration and this gives me a deadline of sorts.
Leprosy is a skin/nerve disease that causes noticeable disfigurement and nerve damage if left untreated. The very word ‘Leprosy’ is a word which for millenia has inspired fear and loathing for those afflicted. This fear was/is so great that lepers were/are often cast out of civilization and forced to subsist in leper colonies. Leprosy was seen as an affliction that was wrought by the wrath of God ™ as a punishment for the wicked. All of that is well documented. Ancient history, however, is not what interests me about this disease. What I want to focus on is the misconceptions that still surround Leprosy.
First of all, while Leprosy is a contagious bacterial disease, it is very difficult to contract. It requires contact with saliva (not disfigured limbs or rashes) and it turns out that 95% of the human population is already naturally immune from this bacterial infection. Currently something around 150 people in the US contract this disease annually according to researchers at the National Hansen’s Disease Program. Hansen’s disease is another name for Leprosy, and one that doesn’t cause such negative and visceral reactions. “Leprosy is a rare disease and will remain a rare disease,” says Richard Truman, Ph.D.the Chief of microbiological research from that same program.
The cure for Leprosy was discovered in 1981. Turns out that Leprosy is just another bacterial infection and can be cured by pharmaceuticals. In this case, a multi-drug approach using Dapsone, Rifampin and Clofazimine. It takes six months to a year to treat a patient but they are no longer contagious after a few doses. Unfortunately, the treatment does not reverse any disfigurement that has already occurred. And more unfortunately, in places like India and China people will often hide their symptoms so as not to be marked as a Pariah. So that by the time they are treated irreparable damage has already occurred. And considering that even in 2012 there are people who have knee-jerk reactions to the word leper, you can hardly blame them for thinking that they will be shunned.