Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) is a skin and nerve disease caused by a very slow growing bacteria. Symptoms can take 3–20 years to develop. It was introduced to the Marshall Islands by foreign individuals likely in the mid–1800s when ships began to arrive. The disease has been eradicated from most countries in the World. Unfortunately the incidence of new cases remains relatively high in the Marshall Islands. It has been eliminated in 34 of 37 countries in the Western Pacific Regions of the World Health Organization but remains in the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and the Marshalls. Micronesian immigrants account for much of the leprosy in the United States, The corresponding rate in Marshallese living in Washington County, Arkansas was 77 per 100,000 compared to 0.05 per 100,000 for the entire United States.
The disease is spread through droplets from the nose and mouth during close and frequent contact with an untreated person. It is actually quite difficult to catch from another individual. Also, the first dose of treatment immediately and completely removes the risk of that person spreading to another. For these reasons, the disease is not considered a threat to casual travelers to the region.
Multidrug blister packs are provided free by the WHO for all patients in the world. Treatment completely cures the patient. If treatment is provided early in the disease course averts any disability. Key factors in elimination of the disease are early detection and a smooth public health referral system.
Because of significant the severe historical stigmatization of leporsy, it is important to reiterate these key facts:
- Leprosy was introduced to the Marshallese by foreigners
- It is difficult to catch with casual contact with infected individuals
- it is a curable disease with free treatment
CDC site on Leprosy https://www.cdc.gov/leprosy/index.html