Locally-acquired cases of leprosy in central Florida have doubled in the last decade, according to a warning issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Central Florida alone accounts for 81% of reported cases in the state and a fifth of all cases in the country.
Although leprosy is typically brought to the US by immigrants from countries where the disease is prevalent, the CDC found that more than a third of cases reported in the southeastern US between 2015 and 2020 were acquired locally. This suggests that leprosy is becoming endemic in central Florida.
One example cited by the CDC is the case of a man who sought treatment at a dermatology clinic for a painful rash. The rash started on his extremities but spread to his torso and face. The man had not traveled abroad or within the US, and had no contact with immigrants or known leprosy patients, indicating that he acquired the disease in central Florida.
The CDC emphasized the significance of this case, stating that it adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that central Florida is an endemic location for leprosy. They warned that travel to this area, even without other risk factors, should prompt consideration of leprosy in the appropriate clinical context.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, has been present since at least 600 BC and is most commonly found in Brazil, India, and parts of Africa and southeast Asia. The disease is thought to spread through prolonged contact with an infected person and causes painful rashes and discoloration of the skin. If left untreated, it can lead to muscle wastage, nerve damage, and paralysis. While leprosy has been curable with antibiotics since the mid-20th century, patients can be left permanently disfigured or physically impaired if not treated early enough.
In the US, the number of leprosy cases peaked in 1983 before dramatically decreasing until the early 2000s. However, the southeastern US has experienced a significant increase in reported cases over the past decade, while the nationwide case tally has remained relatively stable at around 160 to 216 cases per year. The Department of Health and Human Services reported 159 cases in the US in 2020.
Globally, the number of leprosy cases reported annually has declined from over 5 million in the 1980s to 200,000 in 2020, according to the World Health Organization.
The rise of locally-acquired leprosy cases in central Florida highlights the need for increased awareness and vigilance in identifying and treating the disease. The CDC’s warning serves as a reminder to healthcare professionals and travelers that leprosy should be considered as a potential diagnosis in central Florida, even in the absence of other risk factors. Continued efforts in education, prevention, and treatment are essential to controlling the spread of this ancient disease.