Many believe that leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is a disease that has been long eradicated or only a problem of third world countries, but actually this infectious condition is more common and closer to home than we may think.
The Los Angeles County Medical Center of the University of Southern California (LAC+USC) is home to one of the leading Hansen’s disease centers in our region, and over the last 4 decades has cared for over 200 patients with leprosy. Dr. Chow and many of the physicians at Skin and Beauty Center did their residency training at LAC+USC and have had the privilege to care for these patients. Dr. Chow also conducted a research study to describe how we care for this unique population to the scientific community. As you can imagine, these patients face social stigmatization in the general public, but sadly are also misunderstood in the medical field as well.
Hansen’s disease is caused by two types of slow-growing bacteria, mycobacterium leprae and mycobacterium lepromatosis. It is not a very contagious infection. The highest risk factor for developing Hansen’s disease is living with someone with Hansen’s disease. The devastating effects of Hansen’s disease lies not only in the stigmatizing skin manifestations, but these bacteria can also attack the nerves of the body. Aside from the direct effects of the infection, the infection can also trigger a variety of immunologic responses that cause the body to attack itself. Together, the infection and the immunologic responses can cause long-term disability in relatively young individuals
Because Hansen’s disease is relatively rare, the delay in the diagnosis of the disease and the initiation of therapy can be delayed for more than 3 years after the start of symptoms. Our patients have told us heartbreaking stories of being unable to get medical care because of their diagnosis. Treatment often involves a cocktail of antibiotics for more than 2 years. The patients are followed for 10 years after their therapy ends because immunologic responses and recrudescence of the infection can happen.
We would like to emphasize that Hansen’s disease is not contagious and Los Angeles is not at risk for a leprosy outbreak. Rather, we would like to raise awareness about the devastating consequences that the disease can cause.
Contact Maggie Chow, MD, PhD or any of SBC’s Board Certified providers to answer any questions you may have.