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Leprosy is an infection of the skin and nerves caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. It is rare in Australia, and can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics. Leprosy is also known as Hansen's disease.

Types of leprosy

Leprosy mainly affects the nerves of the hands, feet and face, and also the skin. The type of leprosy depends on how your body’s immune system reacts to the bacteria. If you have little resistance to the bacteria, the bacteria may multiply and cause more widespread disease.

If the person has a high level of resistance to the bacteria, they may develop 'paucibacillary' or 'tuberculoid' leprosy, which involves just one or a few spots that may go away over time.

People who have low resistance to the bacteria may develop 'multibacillary' or 'lepromatous' leprosy, which involves numerous spots and, if it's not treated, can lead to other problems such as blindness, deformed limbs, ulcers and loss of feeling.

Causes of leprosy

Leprosy is thought to spread when a person with untreated leprosy coughs or sneezes and a nearby person breathes in the droplets containing the bacteria.

However, it is not very easily spread. You usually need to have close and frequent contact to catch the disease. Most people who come in contact with a person with untreated leprosy are unlikely to get infected.

The disease progresses very slowly. The incubation time (time it takes from being infected to experiencing symptoms) can range from 9 months to 20 years.

In Australia, there are about 10 to 20 notified cases of leprosy a year. Most of these occur in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from northern Australia, as well as migrants from Asia, the Pacific, South America and Africa, where the condition is more common.

Leprosy symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • many skin bumps on both sides of the body
  • a stuffy nose due to the lining of the nose being affected
  • bleeding and inflammation of the eye

If you have higher resistance, you may have fewer skin bumps but experience damage to your nerves.

Photo of deformed hands caused by leprosy.
If leprosy is not treated, it can cause deformity, especially in the hands, feet and face.

Symptoms of nerve damage may include:

  • numbness in affected skin areas
  • muscle weakness in the hands and feet
  • enlarged nerves, especially around the elbow, knee and in the sides of the neck

If it’s not treated, leprosy can cause permanent damage and deformity, especially in the hands, feet and face. Damage to the nerves of the face can cause blindness.

Leprosy diagnosis

Your doctor may recognise leprosy from your symptoms. A small sample of your skin or nerve may be tested for the bacteria.

Leprosy treatment

Leprosy can be cured with a combination of 2 to 3 types of antibiotics. Treatment can last from 6 months to 2 years. Usually, you do not need to stay in hospital for treatment.

Once you start treatment, you are no longer able to spread the disease. You do not need to be kept away from other people during treatment.

To be completely cured, you need to take all your antibiotics as prescribed. Early treatment can also prevent permanent damage and deformity.

People who already have deformities and disabilities from leprosy may have surgery to help them live as normal a life as possible.

Leprosy prevention

If you live in the same house as a person with leprosy, you should get checked and followed up by a doctor.

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Last reviewed: May 2020

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