Sue Dees was nearly incredulous. Someone had told her that someone else had been told that a doctor somewhere—not in Fairhope but in the region—had diagnosed leprosy in a patient. We still have leprosy in the world, in the United States, even in Alabama. There are important things to learn from leprosy which are not just about leprosy.
Leprosy didn’t start with the Bible. Leprosy has been part of the human condition for over 6000 years, with description of the disease in ancient Egypt, China, and India. It can be, and until recent times it was, a disfiguring, repulsive, incurable chronic disease which stole patients’ families, friends, appearance, self esteem, livelihood, and their happiness, leaving only miserable semi-people
In 1894 Dr. Isadore Dyer and five patients with leprosy came upriver from New Orleans on a coal barge to establish, quietly and in a secluded area, a place dedicated to the treatment, the care of and the care for, patients with leprosy. It was sneaky. Another doctor, a friend of Dr. Dyer, had bought 20 acres of land with an abandoned farm and farmhouse. His announced purpose was to develop an “ostrich farm”. That was a ruse to obscure the presence of the dread leprosy. Dr. Dyer was the leader of dedicated people. Charity Hospital in New Orleans donated beds and bedding. Nuns of the Order of the Sisters of Charity gave their lives to care for these miserable children of God.
This was the beginning of what became Carville Leprosarium, the first institution in the country to be devoted to the treatment of leprosy. The bacteria which cause leprosy especially damage skin, nerves, the upper part of the respiratory tract, the eyes, and sometimes the pancreas and kidneys. Areas of the skin lose their pigment, and their sense of touch. Then, as a result of the body’s heroic fight to contain, to wall off, the germ, nodules and lumps form in the skin to the point of disfiguring the patient. Nerves are invaded by the bacteria resulting in loss of pain perception, which allows injuries to occur because pain didn’t warn the patient. Fractures and bone destruction occur.
It is impossible to conceive and even more impossible to calculate, the misery, the isolation, the rejection these patients have felt. Another huge and incalculable quantity is the dedication of those who chose to minister to these whom fate, disease, and society rejected.
We can cure leprosy now. Carville has closed. People with Hansen’s disease—a name for leprosy that avoids the prejudice against that word—are far fewer—-in our country. Annually there are 100 to 150 new cases—-in our country. Elsewhere, not in our country, there is still an enormous problem with the disease. There were 233,000 new cases reported in 2012.
A bit of a postscript. Human leprosy is what we worry about, of course, but armadillos, those “possum on the half shell”, are a natural reservoir for the disease, the only or nearly the only other mammal known to be infected with leprosy. A few cases in the South have been in people who had been in contact with armadillos. One individual with leprosy told of having killed an armadillo and eaten it. No comment.