Hansen's Disease and The Saint

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On October 11, 2009, Father Damien, a Belgian priest, was canonized as a saint in Rome. In the 1800’s Father Damien treated outcasts that were inflicted with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, on an isolated portion of the island of Molokai. He contracted the disease himself, and died in 1889.

Hansen’s disease is an infectious disease that is characterize by disfiguring skin sores, nerve damage, and progressive debilitation from muscle weakness. It is caused by the bacterial organism Mycobacterium leprae, hence the more commonly known name of leprosy.

The bacterium is transmitted through contact with the mucous membranes of the nose and possibly through broken skin. Those with prolonged close contact to someone untreated with the disease are at higher risk of infection themselves.

Despite a long history of banishing people with leprosy to isolated colonies, it is not highly contagious. It is estimated that approximately 95% of people are naturally immune to the bacteria, and those that do contract the disease are no longer considered infectious after just 2 weeks of treatment. Children are more susceptible than adults to contracting the disease.

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Hansen’s disease has 2 common forms: paucibacillary and multibacillary. The multibacillary form is most severe, producing large, disfiguring nodules, thickened dermis, and involvement of the nasal mucosa. All forms of the disease eventually cause peripheral neurological damage, causing loss of sensation, particularly in the hands and feet.

Treatment of the disease is through the delivery of three drugs, often referred to as Multidrug therapy (MDT). The combination includes rifampicin, clofazimine, and dapsone.

Hansen’s disease is most common to countries with temperate or tropical climates. Worldwide, it is estimated that between 1 and 2 million people are permanently disabled due to leprosy. In 2002, World Health Organization listed Brazil, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Nepal as having 90% of all cases.

About 100 cases a year are diagnosed in the United States, with most being in the Southern regions of California, Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and U.S. island possessions. There are also new cases reported in Massachusetts and New York, according to the national Hansen’s Disease Program statistics. Those at the highest risk of contracting Hansen’s disease are those with conditions that compromise the immune function, such as HIV.

Sources Include: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services

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