Leprosy, a disease from ancient times with a fearful stigma, horrified people to the point that sufferers were sent to live in isolated colonies to avoid spreading their disfiguring infections to others. In reality, the condition is not incurable or even incredibly contagious. In fact, many believe that the leprosy written about in the Old Testament may not have been leprosy at all, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
With the exception of few small countries, leprosy has been eliminated in most of the world, according to the World Health Organization. But every once in a while, reports of new cases surface in the United States, and people panic.
In September 2016, parents of students at an elementary school in Jurupa Valley, California, were told that two students "might" be sick with leprosy, reports CBS News. And in summer 2015, Florida health and wildlife experts warned residents to keep their distance from armadillos due to a reported increase in the number of cases of leprosy spread by infected animals.
How leprosy spreads
Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is not highly infectious. It's caused by a slow-growing type of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae), but about 95 percent of people aren't susceptible because they have a natural immunity to that bacteria, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
You can't catch the disease through casual contact, like sitting next to someone or shaking hands. You can only catch it if you come into close and frequent contact via water droplets from the nose and mouth with someone who has the disease, says the WHO. Children are more susceptible than adults.
Some armadillos in the southern U.S. are naturally infected with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk of contracting the disease that way is low, reports the CDC, but the agency suggests avoiding contact with the animals just to be safe.
About 180,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the WHO, mostly in Africa and Asia. In the U.S., new cases are often reported in Hawaii, California and the South.
How leprosy is treated
Leprosy can be treated and cured with standard antibiotics. People may have to take several medications and treatment may last several years, but you can generally return to all your normal activities. The WHO provides free treatment for all people with leprosy.
Patients are no longer contagious once they have taken a few doses of antibiotics, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
If the disease is caught early enough, it becomes only a minor skin condition and does not progress into anything serious.
If leprosy is not caught early — which can sometimes be an issue because health care providers are not always aware of the disease and its symptoms — then complications can be more severe. The disease can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.