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What is Hansen’s Disease?

Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) is an infection caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. These bacteria grow very slowly and it may take up to 20 years to develop signs of the infection.

The disease can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa). The bacteria attack the nerves, which can become swollen under the skin. This can cause the affected areas to lose the ability to sense touch and pain, which can lead to injuries, like cuts and burns. Usually, the affected skin changes color and either becomes:

  • lighter or darker, often dry or flaky, with loss of feeling, or
  • reddish due to inflammation of the skin.

If left untreated, the nerve damage can result in paralysis of hands and feet. In very advanced cases, the person may have multiple injuries due to lack of sensation, and eventually the body may reabsorb the affected digits over time, resulting in the apparent loss of toes and fingers. Corneal ulcers and blindness can also occur if facial nerves are affected. Other signs of advanced Hansen’s disease may include loss of eyebrows and saddle-nose deformity resulting from damage to the nasal septum.

Early diagnosis and treatment usually prevent disability that can result from the disease, and people with Hansen’s disease can continue to work and lead an active life. Once treatment is started, the person is no longer contagious. However, it is very important to finish the entire course of treatment as directed by the doctor.

Each year, about 150 people in the United States and 250,000 around the world get the illness. In the past, Hansen’s disease was feared as a highly contagious, devastating disease, but now we know that it’s hard to spread and it’s easily treatable once recognized. Still, a lot of stigma and prejudice remains about the disease, and those suffering from it are isolated and discriminated against in many places where the disease is seen. Continued commitment to fighting the stigma through education and improving access to treatment will lead to a world free of this completely treatable disease.

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