Leprosy Cases Hit Florida Counties

Three reported infected in last five months in one county.

ByABC News
February 27, 2015, 11:51 AM

— -- Some people might think of leprosy as a scourge from biblical times, but it still afflicts victims -- and a Florida county is reporting a rare increase in cases, with three people diagnosed in just five months.

In the past decade, before the new cases, only one person in Volusia County, Florida, was diagnosed with the disease.

Health officials there said the recent increase in cases was unexpected, but because the incubation period ranges from nine months to 20 years, they did not think the three new cases signaled a wave of new infections.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium lepra. An infection mainly affects the skin, peripheral nerves, eyes and part of the upper respiratory tract, according to the World Health Organization.

Leprosy cases remain rare in the United States, with approximately 80 people reporting infections each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Florida typically sees just eight to 10 cases per year. Leprosy is more common in California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Texas, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration.

In addition to Volusia County, health officials in nearby Brevard County, Florida, have seen a recent increase in cases, with 18 reported over the last five years. Of the eight people diagnosed with leprosy in Florida last year, three were from Brevard County.

Barry Inman, an epidemiologist for Brevard County Department of Health, said the number of cases remained small but was much higher than previous decades, when they would normally see around one case a year.

"This is hard to track," said Inman, who noted the disease can incubate from nine months to 20 years.

"Compared to past history, it is significant and they are looking at it," Inman said of the local health department.

Inman said some of those were infected after interacting with armadillos, a known carrier of the disease.

PHOTO: Health departments have connected past leprosy cases to infections from armadillos.
Health departments have connected past leprosy cases to infections from armadillos.

The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommends people avoid contact armadillos to limit the possibility they can contract the bacteria that causes leprosy.

Symptoms of leprosy include skin lesions that may be faded or discolored, thick, stiff or dry skin, numbness in affected areas, ulcers on the soles of feet or muscle weakness or paralysis.

An estimated one to two million people have been permanently disabled by the disease. Today, the disease can be treated with antibiotics, although a course of treatment can be lengthy, lasting between six months to two years according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.