Leprosy Cases in Florida Prompt CDC Warning

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Aug. 1, 2023 – The skin and nervous system disease leprosy is now considered endemic in the southeastern United States, according to a new study published by the CDC.

Also known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy results from infection with the bacteria M. leprae and can cause blindness and the crippling of the hands and feet. The new analysis shows that the number of leprosy cases in the U.S. has doubled during the past decade, with one-fifth of all U.S. cases occurring in central Florida. There were 159 cases nationwide in 2020.

The alert was published in this month’s edition of the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The author detailed the 2022 case of a 54-year-old Florida man who had lesions on his face, arms, trunk, and feet, and laboratory tests confirmed nerve involvement. The man had lived in central Florida his entire life, worked as a landscaper, and spent a lot of time outdoors. He was successfully treated with antibiotics.

Previously, health experts attributed most U.S. cases to international travel or to contact with armadillos. But this latest study showed that many recent cases in the eastern U.S., including Georgia and central Florida, could not be linked to animals or international travel. 

An estimated 95% of people have natural immunity to leprosy, according to the federally run National Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Program. Nevertheless, the researchers wrote in this study that medical providers should be on alert for the disease when treating people who have traveled to central Florida.