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Doctors who reported rise in Central Florida leprosy cases speak out on findings

scientist in while lab coat and blue gloves looking through microscope
Chokniti Khongchum

A team of Orlando doctors has found an interesting trend: a rise in leprosy cases in Florida with most new cases concentrated in the Central Florida area.

Central Florida accounted for 81 percent of leprosy cases reported in Florida and almost one fifth of nationally reported cases in 2022.

Dr. Charles Dunn, who reported out these findings with a team of doctors, says this shouldn’t cause alarm or panic. Leprosy is not highly contagious and it’s easily treated.

If anything, he hopes this information is empowering to doctors whose patients have symptoms that align with leprosy, but wouldn’t normally think to check for it.

“But whenever I say uptick, we're talking about on average, 150 to 200 cases per year. Just to give kind of perspective: in the world, 250,000 cases of leprosy are reported annually," said Dunn. "So it's still a very small number.”

Dr. Rajiv Nathoo who was on the team too, echoes this sentiment. The data should be used to get patients the answers they need if they have symptoms and haven't been able to find a diagnosis.

"We want to allay the fears of anyone. This paper wasn't written for the purpose of [causing fear]. It was primarily written for physicians to just be mindful of having Central Florida in mind," said Nathoo. "You didn't travel? But you have features of leprosy? Don't tunnel-vision yourself and say it can't be leprosy because you didn't travel."

Both Nathoo and Dunn say the disease itself is slow-growing and in most cases requires constant contact for a prolonged period of time in order to contract it.

Dr. Charles Dunn said most people, about 95 percent of the human population, are already immune to leprosy, which is why it takes the perfect storm to get it.

“A contagious patient, you need a susceptible person, and you need close contact with that person and by close contact, this is not you know, sitting in the bus with them, shaking hands with them, hugging, sitting together at a meal," said Dunn. "This is prolonged contact over the course of months to really kind of contract illness."

There are a group of patients, however, who should be extra cautious: people who are immunocompromised can be at a higher risk for leprosy.

Symptoms of the disease include discolored patches of skin that may be numb and look faded, raised nodules, painless ulcers on the feet, painless lumps on the face or earlobes, and a loss of eyebrows or eyelashes. If you think you have symptoms, contact your primary care provider.

If left untreated, leprosy can cause paralysis in the hands and feet, blindness and deformities of the nose, caused by damage to the nose septum.

There have been 15 cases of leprosy in Florida this year. The majority are in Brevard County.

Learn more about leprosyhere. Read the paperhere.

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.
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