Central Florida, home of Disney World and Universal Studios, is considered by health officials to be a hotbed of current leprosy outbreaks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says one out of five leprosy cases nationwide and 81% of reported cases in Florida is considered endemic in southeastern United States.
Symptoms of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, include lesions, rashes, numbness on the affected areas of skin, muscle weakness, and eye problems according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If left untreated blindness and crippling of hands and feet may occur.
It is caused by the Mycobacterium laprae bacteria, but it is unknown exactly how it spreads. The CDC believes that it may be spread by coughs and sneezes from infected persons but not from handshakes or otherwise being in close contact or touching others.
It is a slow-developing disease, taking months to present symptoms, and curable if caught early. Treatment consists of multi-antibiotic drug therapy for six months, according to the WHO. Early treatment can help prevent disabilities.
Brenda Barnes, public information officer for the Glades/Hendry Florida Department of Health (FDOH) said to date there have been 16 cases of leprosy reported in Florida since January 1.
Brevard and Volusia counties have the highest numbers of reported cases; four in Brevard County and three in Volusia County, according to the FDOH website.
Highlands and Palm Beach counties have reported one case each.
“Leprosy infection is rare and easily cured,” Barnes wrote in an email to Lake Okeechobee News on Aug. 15 when asked if there had been any reported cases in Hendry and Glades counties.
“The Department continues to monitor cases of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, and encourages Floridians to remain vigilant for its signs and symptoms. The Department encourages Floridians to continue practicing proper sanitary measures. If an individual suspects infection, he or she should seek medical attention immediately.”
Considered rare in the United States, most cases in the country affect those who travel to countries with high rates of the disease – or who have been exposed to armadillos, known carriers of leprosy.
It has not been identified in other wildlife to date and other animals, including dogs and cats, are not susceptible to infection according to FDOH.
If someone thinks they have been infected, it is advised to consult a health care provider.