Why are leprosy cases surging in US state of Florida?

Leprosy has been uncommon in the United States but studies suggest it is now spreading within its population.

A 3D illustration of Mycobacterium leprae bacteria, which cause leprosy [Getty images]

Leprosy cases are surging in Florida, suggesting the chronic infectious disease may have become endemic in the southeastern United States.

The number of cases more than doubled in the southeastern states over the last decade, with Florida among the top reporting states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in its latest report.

Central Florida, in particular, accounted for 81 percent of cases reported in Florida and almost one-fifth of nationally reported cases.

Here is what you need to know about the increased incidences of leprosy cases:

Is leprosy common in the US?

Leprosy has been historically uncommon in the United States. The annual number of documented cases peaked around 1983 before dropping.

However, reports suggest the incidence of the disease gradually increased again and more than doubled in the southeastern states over the last 10 years.

According to the National Hansen’s Disease Program, 159 new cases were reported in the United States in 2020.

Whereas leprosy in the United States previously affected people who had immigrated from leprosy-endemic areas, 34 percent of new case patients during 2015–2020 appeared to have locally acquired the disease – suggesting it is spreading within the population of this particular region.

Why is leprosy spreading in Florida?

Scientists are not completely sure why the disease is spreading in parts of the United States, including Florida.

The disease is likely transmitted via droplets through coughs and sneezes and through prolonged contact. It does not spread through casual physical contact, like shaking hands or sitting next to a person on the bus, according to the CDC.

Animals such as nine-banded armadillos can also carry the bacteria, but studies suggest recent cases in Georgia and central Florida could not be linked to animals or international travel.

The CDC cited the case of a 54-year-old man treated for leprosy who lives in central Florida and did not travel domestically or internationally. He is also not known to have had prolonged contact with individuals returning from countries at risk.

The man worked in landscaping and spent long periods outdoors, meaning traditional risk factors were absent.

How dangerous is leprosy?

Leprosy primarily affects the skin and peripheral nervous system. The course of the disease is largely dependent on individual susceptibility.

The main symptoms include the growth of nodules on the skin, muscle weakness or paralysis, nosebleeds and eye problems that may lead to blindness.

The disease can be recognised by the appearance of patches of skin that may look lighter or darker than normal.

It is usually treated with a combination of antibiotics that kill the bacteria that cause leprosy and the therapy cycle lasts between one to two years. The illness can be cured if treatment is completed as prescribed.

If left untreated, however, the nerve damage can result in paralysis and the crippling of hands and feet.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies