"Approximately 150 cases are diagnosed each year with 3,000 people in the U.S. currently being treated for leprosy," says Dr. James Krahenbuhl, director of the Health Resources Service Administration's National Hansen's Disease Program (NHDP) in Baton Rouge, LA.
"We believe there are more cases of leprosy not identified due to the lack of awareness about the disease among physicians in the U.S., which is leading to misdiagnosis and wrong treatments for patients who are left to suffer with the debilitating damage caused by this disease," he adds.
While the root cause of the transmission of leprosy has yet to be determined, it is known to be a chronic disease that slowly attacks the peripheral nervous system and motor skills, often leading to disability and disfigurement.
Since the onset of infection and symptoms can take three to 10 years, according to experts, it is very difficult to find the origin of where or how people acquire the disease.
Leprosy can be fully treated with medicine when diagnosed in early stages, but nerve damage cannot be reversed once the disease has advanced.
The NHDP says that many doctors are not familiar with the disease because most people affected by leprosy in the U.S. are immigrants in poor communities who primarily seek treatment in free clinics or emergency rooms, and thus doctors mistake the skin lesions of leprosy for a fungus or ringworm and treat it with a topical cream.
Given the slow progression of leprosy, it may take months before the doctor or the patient realizes that the treatment is not working, giving the disease enough time to start destroying the nervous system.
The NHDP says that the relocation of immigrants from the tropics and third world countries, where leprosy is most prevalent, is one of the reason why the disease is being diagnosed throughout the U.S.
"As we see leprosy move toward internal regions of the States, it becomes more urgent to reach those physicians to let them know about the symptoms of this disease," says Dr. Krahenbuhl.
Dr. James Krahenbuhl will lead a symposium at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene meeting to raise awareness among physicians that leprosy is in the U.S. and assistance and treatments are available.