About Hansen's Disease

What is Hansen's Disease?

Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, is a disease that chronically affects the peripheral nervous system, mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and eyes, and the skin. It is considered an infectious disease. The disease was called Hansen’s after Dr. Armauer Hansen, a Norwegian physician, who discovered the mycobacterium leprae cause. Leprosy has been known throughout history as the incurable disease of a lifetime of disfigurement. At one time people who were diagnosed with leprosy were called lepers and considered unclean and put into leper colonies to keep them out of sight. It is one of the earliest recorded diseases, going back to a time possibly more than 4000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent. It is thought that soldiers under Alexander the Great, when invading India in the fourth century BC. Then when they went back home through the middle east, and through the Mediterranean, they supposedly spread the disease throughout. It is also believed that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey took the disease from Egypt to Italy in the first century BC, and that Roman legionnaires later took the disease as far as the British Isles. Rather abruptly and for unknown reasons, leprosy began to decline in Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia, between 1200 and 1300. It wasn’t until 1873, in Norway that Dr. Hansen identified the leprosy bacillus (Mycobacterium Leprae). At that time leprosy affected about 2.5 percent of the population of Bergen, where Hansen did his work. His discovery and work allowed the modern world of medicine to treat the disease itself, rather than merely containing it or treating the symptoms.

How does one treat it?

Hansen's disease is cured by multi-drug antibiotic therapy. The most current method of treatment is very effective killing the bacterium rather quickly. The multi-drug therapy, which is the use of two or more anti-leprosy drugs in combination, prevents the development of drug-resistant strains. Killing the bacillus has no effect on body tissues that have already been damaged or destroyed. Up to a specific point, nerve function can be restored by anti-leprosy drugs, but once the disease has progressed beyond that point, the loss of function is permanent.

What causes it?

Even today, scientists aren’t completely sure of the exact mechanism of transfer, however they believe they know how the disease is transmitted. The nine-banded armadillo is thought to be responsible for some of the 200 cases of Hansen's Disease in the US. It was popularly theorized that the disease is transmitted respiratorily. This proposed that the disease is inhaled through the lining of the nose. Also it was proven with a mouse that it could be transmitted through breaks in the skin. However it can’t be transmitted through the mouth, lungs, digestive tract, or unbroken skin. It is caused by a bacillus called mycobacterium leprae. (a bacillus is a rod shaped bacterium). Mycobacterium leprae is a relative of M. tuberculosis, the bacillus that causes tuberculosis.

How Damien House helps the cause...

The Damien House is a residential hospital for over 30 Hansen’s patients, and in addition treats a roster of around 700 outpatients. Quality medical care is provided seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. With the help of donations to the United States based Damien House organization, the staff is also able to provide patients with dental care, physical and occupational therapy, sanitary services, medication, and three well-balanced hot meals every day. Additionally, Damien House has a community outreach program that helps those who have been treated and cured to secure a home, find work, and participate in community activities so that they may return to living full lives. They also collaborate with peripheral nerve surgeons who call themselves Annie’s Angels. The group Annie’s Angels comes from the US to perform nerve decompression surgeries on our patients.