Leprosy on the rise in the USA

This week, media reports have highlighted a 'surge' in leprosy cases in the USA and particularly in Florida, the state reporting many of these new cases.

While this news will be causing worry for some, it's a vital opportunity for us all to understand more about leprosy and how much of a risk it poses.

We always welcome stories of leprosy in the press. They raise awareness of leprosy as a 21st century disease which continues to devastate lives today. But it is equally important to raise awareness that it is not a disease to be feared.

Leprosy has been easily curable since the 1980s with Multidrug therapy, a combination of three antibiotics. Yet it continues to thrive in the world today because of a lack of access to healthcare, lack of awareness and stigma.

Leprosy is a disease of poverty. It thrives in communities where there is malnutrition, overcrowding and poor sanitation. Yet it is only mildly infectious and in addition, more than 95 per cent of people are immune to the disease. This is why there have been no indigenous cases of leprosy in the UK since 1798.

It could be easy to feel alarmed by this week's news reports, but to put the US figures into context, there were 159 new leprosy cases diagnosed in the US in 2020 and 31 of these were found in Florida. In contrast, 65,147 new cases were found in India in the same year. We should bear in mind that this was a worryingly very low number for India. In 2019, 114, 441 new cases were found.

This dramatic drop in new cases was a result of people being unable to access medical care because of national lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid. It was not because fewer people are living with the disease. Research shows that for every person cured of leprosy, there are a further 19 hidden cases. Often, people with leprosy symptoms are reluctant to come forward for treatment because of the stigma of the disease, which has long been seen as a curse and still results in prejudice and discrimination today.

Unless these ‘hidden’ people are found and cured, they are at high risk of developing life-long - yet preventable - disabilities as a result of untreated leprosy. This is why our teams around the world work tirelessly to find and cure people in the early stages of the disease - and why rising numbers of people being diagnosed with leprosy can also be for the best.

Our mission is to defeat leprosy - through finding and treating new cases and transforming lives. We welcome greater awareness of the disease and of the fact that it is easily curable and not to be feared.

What is leprosy? Find out more