Leprosy is the world’s oldest known disease. It is clearly referenced in the Bible, and we know that by 380 AD, there were 636 leprosy houses in Italy. From 1000 AD to 1400 AD, leprosy was endemic in Europe. During the 16th–18th centuries, the disease spread from Spain to Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and eventually the southern United States.
Yet, for a disease that has touched every continent where people are living, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the disease. Do you believe these myths? Let’s change our thinking.
1. You can catch leprosy from touching someone who is affected.
You cannot catch leprosy just from touching someone. In fact, 95% of humans are naturally immune to Mycobacterium leprae, the germ that causes leprosy. While it is still not known exactly how the disease is spread, long-term exposure in unsanitary conditions is one of the contributing factors.
According to the World Health Organization, the most likely way the disease is spreads is through airborne water droplets. Still, short-term exposure is very unlikely to transmit the disease.
2. Leprosy causes your fingers, toes and limbs simply to fall off.
Leprosy does not cause any body parts to fall off. The disease affects nerves in the hands and feet, eventually causing them to become anesthetized—meaning all feeling is lost. Those affected by leprosy are at greater risk for cutting, burning, or otherwise injuring themselves. Fingers and toes can be lost through cuts and burns that become infected.
Anesthetized feet are also more susceptible to ulcers. If not treated and properly cared for, a complicated ulcer can result in the need to amputate a foot or part of a leg.
3. Everyone who has leprosy will become disfigured.
Leprosy does not necessarily result in clawed hand or dropped foot. If caught and cured at an early stage, patients will have no visible signs of the disease beyond some skin patches.
4. Those affected by leprosy cannot work or participate in community life.
Leprosy is fully curable and reconstructive surgery is available for those affected by clawed hand or dropped foot. Many leprosy-affected persons are able to continue with work and actively contribute to their communities.
Organizations that combat leprosy, such as effect:hope (The Leprosy Mission Canada), also offer microfinance loans, vocational training and community-based rehabilitation (CBR) activities.
5. Leprosy is a disease of the developing world and never existed in Canada.
Canada had 3 leprosariums, or leprosy hospitals. In 1929, D’Arcy Island, British Columbia closed as a leprosy colony. The remaining residents were moved to Bentinck Island, which operated until 1957.
The first case of leprosy in New Brunswick was noted in 1815. Patients were housed at Tracadie leprosarium. After the last patient died in 1964, its doors were closed indefinitely.