Florida's Newest Woe: Leprosy

CDC says Central Florida accounts for nearly 20% of cases nationwide
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 1, 2023 9:20 AM CDT
Updated Aug 5, 2023 12:30 PM CDT
Florida's Newest Woe: Leprosy
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/a3701027)

Florida is contending with invasive species, spiking insurance rates, worrisome warming waters, political tensions, and now ... leprosy? That's according to the CDC, who on Monday issued a release spelling out how the infectious condition, also known as Hansen's disease, has taken hold in the Sunshine State, especially the central portion, reports the Hill. Per the release, Florida was one of the top states that contributed to the 159 new cases in the United States in 2020, with Central Florida being hit especially hard: That portion accounted for 81% of the cases in Florida that year, and nearly 20% of the cases nationally.

The agency notes that its findings "contribute to rising evidence that leprosy has become endemic in the southeastern United States." The CDC adds that "travel to Florida should be considered when conducting leprosy contact tracing in any state." Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria, which affects the nerves, skin, eyes, and nasal lining. Symptoms typically include discolored skin patches (as well as thick, stiff, or dry skin); loss of eyebrows or eyelashes; ulcers on the soles of one's feet; muscle weakness; and a loss of sensation, meaning, for instance, a patient may not feel if their skin is being burned.

Upward of 200,000 cases are reported annually worldwide, per the World Health Organization, which notes that the most cases have emerged in Brazil, India, and Indonesia. The agency says the number of reported cases in the southeastern part of the US has "more than doubled" over the past decade, and that multiple cases tracked in Florida "demonstrate no clear evidence of zoonotic exposure or traditionally known risk factors."

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The disease is curable, with early diagnosis and intervention, and those affected by it "can continue to work and lead an active life during and after treatment," per the CDC. Left untreated, however, the havoc wrought on a person's nervous system can lead to vision loss, crippling of the hands and feet, and paralysis. There's also still a stigma associated with leprosy, which used to erroneously be thought a "highly contagious, devastating condition," per CBS News. "Those suffering from it are isolated and discriminated against in many places where the disease is seen," according to the CDC. (More Florida stories.)

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