Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a rare disease caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. The bacteria grow very slowly, and it can take up to 20 years for someone to develop any symptoms. Leprosy can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose. If left untreated, nerve damage can result in the crippling of hands and feet, paralysis, and blindness. Leprosy does not spread easily to others and treatment is very effective.
Leprosy is caused by a group of slow growing bacteria called Myobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. While it is still not entirely known how leprosy spreads between people, it likely spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Someone must have close contact with someone with untreated leprosy for many months to catch the disease. Leprosy does not spread through hugging, shaking hands, sexual contact, or sitting next to someone who is sick.
Leprosy mainly affects the skin, nerves, eyes, and thin tissue lining the inside of the nose.
The main symptoms of leprosy include:
- Discolored skin patches that may be numb and look faded
- Numbness or tingling of the hands, feet, arms, and legs
- Painless lumps, wounds, or ulcers on the face, earlobes, or on the bottom of the feet
- Muscle weakness
If left untreated, symptoms of advanced leprosy can include:
- Paralysis and crippling of the hands and feet
- Nose disfigurement
- Shortening of toes and fingers
- Chronic non-healing ulcers on the bottoms of the feet
Leprosy is treated with a combination of antibiotics. Treatment usually lasts between one to two years. Someone who is being treated for leprosy can continue to work and lead an active life.
The best way to prevent the spread of leprosy is to diagnose and treat people early. If you live with or regularly spend time with someone with leprosy, avoid contact with body fluids and get examined yearly for at least five years after your last contact with someone who is infectious.
Information for providers
This is a Wisconsin disease surveillance category II disease:
- Report to the patient's local public health department electronically, through the Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System (WEDSS), by mail or fax using an Acute and Communicable Disease case report, F-44151 (Word) or by other means within 72 hours upon recognition of a case.
- Information on communicable disease reporting
Wisconsin case reporting and public health follow-up guidelines
- Case Reporting and Investigation Protocol (EpiNet): Leprosy, P-01925 (PDF)