What Is Leprosy? - History, Signs & Treatment

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  • 0:08 A Trip Back In Time
  • 0:43 Hansen's Disease
  • 1:41 Mycobacterium Leprae…
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

We will learn about a terrible and ancient condition known as leprosy. We'll discuss how it relates to Hansen's disease, Mycobacterium leprae, Mycobacterium lepromatosis, tuberculoid leprosy, and lepormatous leprosy.

A Trip Back in Time

We're going to take a trip back in time to the Middle Ages. A lot of people like to think of the Middle Ages as a time of beautiful princesses, lavish feasts and brave knights. The reality was that on the street you were less likely to come across a knight than you were people with rotten black teeth, tumors growing out the side of their head and grotesquely disfigured faces. So, our trip isn't going to be one of historical fantasy and more like historical fact.

Hansen's Disease

In ancient times and the Middle Ages - even as recently as the 20th century - there were places called 'leper colonies.' These were the homes of unfortunate individuals afflicted with something known as leprosy, which is also called Hansen's disease. This is a condition where a person develops skin lesions, nerve damage and secondary infections, leading to the loss of fingers and toes.

The disfigured faces and hands these individuals had scared a lot of people to the point where governments around the world established leper colonies where people who had this disease were often forced to live far away from society. The other reason that individuals affected with leprosy were forced away into isolated communities was because the disease was thought to be highly contagious.

Mycobacterium Leprae and Forms of Leprosy

We now know that the rod-shaped bacteria that cause leprosy, known as Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis, are not as contagious as once thought. However, if a person inhales these bacteria in respiratory droplets, they may, in some cases, cause chronic, or long-term, infections.

These infections manifest themselves in two major forms of leprosy:

  • Tuberculoid
  • Lepromatous

In the tuberculoid form of leprosy, there are changes in the color of the skin that cause little or no elevation of the skin. A change in the color of the skin without any elevation is known as a 'macule.' The color changes of macules in tuberculoid leprosy often result in hypopigmentation of the skin, or the loss of normal skin color. In addition, these areas of the skin are also devoid of any sensation due to the damage the bacteria cause to the local sensory nerves.

You can liken what occurs in the skin with the tuberculoid form of leprosy to a kind of bleaching of the skin from within. Imagine this: If you were to drop a little bit of bleach on a red shirt and leave it there for a while, the spot where the bleach sat would turn from red to white. However, the bleach will do nothing else but change the color of that spot; it will not cause that area to grow in size.

This is in contrast to the lepromatous form of leprosy, where the individual is affected not only with macules, but with other patches, lumps and bumps on the skin, called 'papules' and 'plaques.' These areas of the skin are severely infiltrated with the bacteria and immune cells that are trying to kill them off.

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