The Sad Persistence of Hansen’s Disease

A California town recently reported that two elementary school children may have contracted Hansen’s disease.  How or where they might have contracted it is unknown.

Hansen’s disease — also known as leprosy (from the Latin lepra for “scaly”) – has afflicted and terrified humans since antiquity.  It is a chronic disease that primarily affects the skin and nerves, causing incurable disfigurement and physical disabilities.  Though it is not highly infectious (at least 95 percent of the general population is naturally immune to the disease), victims were historically shunned and exiled to leper colonies.

Leprosy was originally thought to be hereditary.  In 1873, physician Gerhard Armeuer Hansen discovered the cause as the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, the first time a bacterium was identified as causing human disease.  Today, Hansen’s disease is curable with antibiotics.  Nevertheless, it continues to afflict hundreds of thousands of people every year, primarily in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Agilent technologies have played a role in the study of Hansen’s disease.  British archaeologists examined skeleton remains from nine burial sites in Winchester.  Through detailed genotyping, they found the presence of type 3I-1 M. leprae, indicating that leprosy likely entered the United States from being carried by European migrants.  They also found the presence of type 2F M. leprae, indicating that the disease had migrated from the Middle East to Britain by early medieval times.  The researchers used an Agilent RT PCR platform to amplify samples.

Some health experts speculate that the two California students may have been infected with Hansen’s disease from armadillos, which are natural carriers of M leprae.  American researchers have found the bacterium present in armadillos throughout the southeastern United States, accounting for more than 40 percent of human infections.  A recent study concluded that the geographic range and complexity of zoonotic leprosy (spread from animals to humans) is expanding.  The researchers used an Agilent Bioanalyzer system to validate DNA quality and integrity.

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