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Leprosy (Hansen's Disease)

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History of the Disease

Leprosy was well recognized in the oldest civilizations of China, Egypt, and India. The first known written reference to leprosy appeared in an Egyptian papyrus document written around 1550 BC.

Throughout history, leprosy has been feared and misunderstood, and has resulted in significant stigma and isolation of those who are afflicted. It was thought to be a hereditary disease, a curse, or punishment from the gods. During the Middle Ages, those with leprosy were forced to wear special clothing and ring bells to warn others as they walked by.

A cumulative total of the number of people who, over the millennia, have suffered its chronic course of incurable disfigurement, physical disabilities, or psychological trauma can never be estimated. There are many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with a significant number of leprosy cases and 1 to 2 million people worldwide are visibly and irreversibly disabled due to past and present leprosy.

Photo of the nation’s first leprosarium.
The nation’s first leprosarium, located in what is now known as Carville, Louisiana.

In 1921, the U.S. Public Health Service established the nation’s first leprosarium, located in what is now known as Carville, Louisiana. The leprosarium served as an institution for people with leprosy and a hospital for experiments with treatments for leprosy as well as a laboratory to study the organism. The center, which became known simply as “Carville,” became a refuge for leprosy patients and one of the premier centers of scientific research and testing in attempts to find a cure for the disease.

In 1941, the discovery of Promin, a sulfone drug, was shown to successfully cure leprosy, but this treatment also involved painful injections. Promin became known as the “Miracle of Carville.” In the 1950s, dapsone pills, pioneered by Dr. R.G. Cochrane at Carville, became the treatment of choice for leprosy. Dapsone worked wonderfully at first, but Mycobacterium leprae bacteria eventually began developing dapsone resistance.

In the 1970s, the first successful multidrug treatment (MDT) regimen for leprosy was developed through drug trials on the island of Malta. In 1981, The World Health Organization began recommending MDT, a combination of three drugs: dapsone, rifampicin, and clofazimine. The completion of MDT takes from 6 months to a year or even more, depending on clinical manifestations of the leprosy infection.

In 1986, the Carville facility became known Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Center, named after the distinguished U.S. Congressman, close friend, and associate of the people working and living with leprosy. During its century of service, Carville was home to several hundreds of patients, some of whom met and married there and spent a majority of their lives on the picturesque campus. When the hospital at Carville closed in 1998, its few remaining patients were reluctant to leave. The buildings and grounds were transferred to the State of Louisiana in 1998, and the clinical center relocated to Baton Rouge. A museum archiving the history of the Center and a National Cemetery remain open to the public. Some elderly patients continue to live at the facility.

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Last Updated February 08, 2011