Friday, May 30, 2008

Old myths about leprosy still around

Elizabeth Blanchard, 15, left, was diagnosed with
Hansen's disease (leprosy).

The Washington Post reports on a Baton Rouge, La., teen, Elizabeth "BB" Blanchard, who was diagnosed with leprosy, which is now called Hansen's disease. The story is very thorough in covering both Blanchard's story and the history and stigma of Hansen's disease.

The Blanchard family and everyone at BB's school received an in-depth lesson about leprosy after her diagnosis. And even in modern-day America, the old fears and stigma about the disease reared their heads.

The Blanchards found they were in the correct location to educate themselves because the National Hansen's Disease (Leprosy) Clinical Center, part of the U.S. Public Health Service, is in Baton Rouge. "Founded in 1894 as a state leprosarium in nearby Carville, La., the center is considered the premier research and treatment facility in the world for leprosy," The Post reports.

About 300,000 new cases of leprosy are diagnosed each year around the world and it affects 2-3 million people internationally, according to the World Health Organization.

"Where it is left untreated, Hansen's disease is a leading cause of disability and devastating deformity," The Post says. "It remains endemic in Bangladesh, India, Brazil and elsewhere."

In the United States, about 6,000 people have Hansen's disease, with 100-200 new cases reported each year. About 60 percent of the new cases are found in California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Texas. Studies report that about 95% of humans are naturally immune to leprosy.

The Post reports that the wealth of information on the Internet has helped erode some of the stigma of the disease, which is easily treatable where the anti-leprosy drugs dapsone and rifampin are available.

But misinformation about biblical disease that in the old days banished people to quarantine colonies continues to occasionally appear: In February an Arkansas television station aired an incorrect story saying that recent cases of leprosy among immigrants from the Marshall Islands could grow into an epidemic affecting Americans.

"The item was later corrected by the television station, which chalked it up to bad information from some local doctors, but not before it was publicized online by the Drudge Report," The Post says.

As for BB Blanchard, now that she is well, she says she's not sorry for the experience.

"At my last doctor's appointment, I told my mom that I am kind of happy I have this," she says. "I learned a lot about this disease and got more educated about it. I also find it really cool that I am part of the 5 percent of the world that is not immune to leprosy. Why me? I don't know. But it has been a really cool experience having a biblical disease."

BB and a friend are even planning a science project leprosy for the next school year: "This is the perfect thing to educate my school and everyone about it," BB says. "I have really great knowledge about it now."