New Facts About Leprosy and COVID

I’m reading a book called The Island (Victoria Hislop) which is about a leper colony and the book is set in the 1900’s where people with leprosy were exiled to an island called Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete (Greece). I didn’t realize this was a real island until 20 pages in! And people were really sent there to live, and to die. The island became self-sufficient and only after 1957 were the residents allowed to return to their homes (if they were still alive). Spinalonga became a leper colony in 1903.

Patients with leprosy were banished from their home, and they not treated with compassion, and in fact, they were not treated at all! So many people died. Even today, half of the cases of leprosy occur in parts of India and there are still leper colonies.

There is an ARTICLE here about India.

There are leper colonies all over the world. This condition is ancient, but sadly, even with centuries of medical advancements, we still see hundreds of thousands of cases globally. According to one statistic from lepra.org, there are more than 3 million people worldwide living with undiagnosed leprosy.

Hansen’s Disease.
It is medically known as Hansen’s disease. Once the pathogen called Mycobacterium leprae gets into a person (usually through saliva or touching lesions), it takes up residence in the nerves where it causes neuropathy and pain. It kills the myelin coating of the nervous system.

Those afflicted with leprosy are often from poverty-stricken areas where there is difficulty accessing medical professionals and clean food or water. The condition, if untreated, will cause nerve pain, skin lesions, disfigurement, and amputation, not to mention social stigma. In fact, to that end, just 2 weeks ago, the United Nations published a PAPER on the need to stop discriminating against people with the condition. It is not quite as contagious as most people assume.

In the book I am reading, The Island, one of the lead characters, a teacher named “Eleni” becomes infected with leprosy by her student Dimitri, and they are both banished from Crete to live forever on the little island of Spinalonga. Eleni was never to return home, but her altruistic and loving nature made life better for those she knew during her time on the island.

Like COVID, the condition of leprosy seems to show benefits from Vitamin D. They did not know that back in the 40’s and 50’s when Spinalonga and other leper colonies formed. I am not comparing leprosy to corona, not at all. The only similarity is that vitamin D can be helpful for both according to scientific research.  We already know that vitamin D is helpful for many aspects of immune function.* Plus we also know according to this STUDY that vitamin D can help with myelin sheath repair in patients with multiple sclerosis.* There are other studies to support D’s role in the nervous system. So it’s no surprise to me that we now know that sunshine can help with infections by the fact that it forms vitamin D in the body. Many people take supplements of this nutrient as well.

This is a STUDY that shares information regarding vitamin D and leprosy.

This ARTICLE discusses the correlation between vitamin D and COVID symptom severity. There are others.

Today’s aim is to enlighten you about the condition of leprosy because it still exists in the US and it is something that is misunderstood and neglected. Millions of people have it, and do not know.

The condition of leprosy is treatable. It evokes so much fear, and stigma such that people do not even get proper diagnosis or treatments. But it should not be this way anymore, because we have excellent treatments today for it. Depending on the specific type of bacteria that one is infected with, there are actually several effective and useful treatments. Where millions of people used to die from this in ancient times, today it is considered curable.

At the turn of the millennia, we see better cure rates. In fact, in the 20 years between 1994 to 2014, we saw approximately 16 million people worldwide that got cured from leprosy. You probably didn’t realize that this many people could be infected I bet, but yes, 16 million! That isn’t to say they didn’t suffer some type of pain or discomfort, because that is possible if you don’t catch it early.

Spread.
The organism is slow-growing. It multiplies every two weeks or so, and it’s impossible to grow it in a lab. It is not spread from casual contact such as hugging or sharing a meal together. The method of spread varies depending what expert you ask, however, most agree that prolonged contact may be one way, such that there is mucosal contact (touching a lesion for example). The idea of respiratory spread is gaining ground, but not everyone agrees.

It cannot grow outside of an animal, like on an agar plate. It requires an animal, like a human, or even Amazonian armadillo.  It can cross from animal to human, for example, if the animal is a host, and you eat it.

According to this ARTICLE:
“Besides human beings, natural infection has been described in animals such as mangabey monkeys and armadillos….armadillos have become the primary experimental model for leprosy, mimicking human disease including involvement of the peripheral nervous system. Leprosy transmission occurs through continuous and close contact of susceptible people with untreated infected people. However, unknown leprosy contact has been reported in leprosy-affected people, and contact with armadillos is a risk factor for leprosy. In the USA, leprosy is considered a zoonosis and this classification has recently been accepted in Brazil. This review presents information regarding the role of wild armadillos as a source of M. leprae for human infections, as well as the pathogenesis of leprosy.”

Why do I even  mention this? Because some people still eat armadillos. When I lived in Florida, this was common practice among some of the residents. You think I am kidding? But no,  there are many recipes available online, enlisting armadillos as the main course. As a reminder, zoonotic infections are sometimes preventable to some degree, and therefore easier to avoid than to cure. Lyme disease is an example of another common zoonotic infection which, if allowed to progress, causes neurological and muscular symptoms similar to leprosy. A few years ago, in the southern US (ie Florida, Texas and Louisiana) there were some cases of Hansen’s disease (leprosy), which may have been associated with armadillos, which again host the infectious organism that causes leprosy. There is an article available HERE.

You may want to read what the CDC says about armadillos and leprosy. Here’s the LINK.

Pangolin and Anteater

Armadillos are creatures that look eerily similar to pangolins, but they are genetically unrelated. The pangolin, if you recall, is thought to be one possible link behind the spread of COVID). Both pangolins and armadillos are ant-eaters but they are not related, nor are the diseases that each spread.

But back to leprosy or “Hansen’s Disease” since that is my focus today. During the past two years, we’ve seen leprosy cases dramatically increase in Brazil. Mainstream media outlets do not frequently cover the story, as other stories take precedence. If you plan to travel there. The disease is easily misdiagnosed for other conditions.

The resurgence is occurring in Brazil, and there are many stories about it online if you choose to look. As an example, you can read this ARTICLE which has an interesting graph showing global outbreaks. Apparently, India is the highest, then Brazil and in third place, Indonesia. It is pretty well controlled in China according to THIS ARTICLE.

The signs and symptoms of Leprosy include:

Discolored patch of skin on the body (leg, chest, arm, neck)
Changes in voice
Painless ulcers on the feet
Muscle weakness in the hands or legsLoss of eyebrows or eyelashes
Painless swelling or lumps on the face or ears
Thick patches of skin
Possible nosebleeds or stuffy sinus
Numbness in parts of the skin

Treatment of leprosy will help to avoid the nerve damage that may occur as it progresses. Some of the symptoms related to the nervous system ‘unraveling’ include:

Shortening of toes and fingers
Disfigurement
Paralysis
Foot drop
Blindness
NeuropathyBurning sensations in the skin
Chronic ulcers that don’t heal on the skin or feet
Difficulty swallowing or talking

There are many physicians today who specialize in the treatment of leprosy and other infectious diseases, so if you have concerns that the bacteria has invaded your body, please do some reading about it. There is more information at the following sites:

Leprosy Mission International

International Leprosy Association

National Hansen’s Disease Program

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