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Leprosy Persists in Texas, But the Disease Is No Longer a Death Sentence

For thousands of years, people have had an image of what life with leprosy is like. You might think it's been eradicated, but leprosy — now referred to as Hansen's disease — still affects hundreds of people in the U.S. every year. Many of those victims are in Texas but, with treatment, a life with leprosy is no longer a death sentence.

The disease causes disfiguring sores and nerve damage. While there's  no vaccine, 95 percent of people worldwide are naturally immune to the bacteria. For the rest, there's treatment. 

Linda Brown is a nurse consultant overseeing the four state clinics in Texas treating patients with leprosy. She treated her first patient with leprosy in 1968, and says patients most often associate the disease with its biblical connotations. 

"I, all the time, have had patients say to me 'What have I done that is so bad that God is punishing me by giving me leprosy?'" says Brown.

While the history of leprosy in Texas doesn't stretch back to Leviticus, the disease is nothing new here. 

Texas has the second highest number of leprosy cases in the U.S., behind California, according to the Centers for Disease Control's most recent data. Texas accounted for 26 of 213 new cases in 2009. The agency calls Texas' relatively high numbers historically normal because, strangely enough, of one of the state's most iconic and prolific animals: armadillos. The disease has been carried by the nine-banded Armadillo since the 18th century. 

Scientists haven't been able to determine why some armadillos carry the leprosy bacteria. They also don't know if the armadillos transmit the bacteria to humans or if the bacteria is in the soil and both humans and armadillos get infected.

Treatment, however, has advanced. A mix of antibiotics for one or two years will cure most of the cases in Texas every year. But, because of the disease's infrequent occurrence, many doctors don't know the symptoms and often miss it entirely. MP3 version of this story

Leprosy causes numbness. That's its signature. One of the ways Debbie Mata determines how much damage the bacteria has caused is by running the fine fibers she's holding on the patient's arms, legs, fingers and toes.
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT /
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Leprosy causes numbness. That's its signature. One of the ways Debbie Mata determines how much damage the bacteria has caused is by running the fine fibers she's holding on the patient's arms, legs, fingers and toes.
As Debbie Mata examines her new patient, she notices he has lost all feeling in some of his toes. She urges him to start wearing white socks. If he gets hurt and bleeds he won't feel it, but the blood will alert him.
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT /
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As Debbie Mata examines her new patient, she notices he has lost all feeling in some of his toes. She urges him to start wearing white socks. If he gets hurt and bleeds he won't feel it, but the blood will alert him.
James Landolt says he can "delineate" the part in his arm that feels "dead". It's taken at least seven years for someone to diagnose him correctly. Doctors know leprosy still exists. But few are able to diagnose it.
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT /
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James Landolt says he can "delineate" the part in his arm that feels "dead". It's taken at least seven years for someone to diagnose him correctly. Doctors know leprosy still exists. But few are able to diagnose it.
A host of doctors and nurses examine every inch of James Landolt's body. They look for anything suspicious. They take photos and make notes on papers that have pictures of the human body.
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT /
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A host of doctors and nurses examine every inch of James Landolt's body. They look for anything suspicious. They take photos and make notes on papers that have pictures of the human body.
The examination lasted hours. During that time, James Landolt discovered he had lost feeling in some of his fingers. That may be why just a couple of weeks before, his fingers lost control of his steering wheel. He crashed into incoming traffic in Austin.
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT /
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The examination lasted hours. During that time, James Landolt discovered he had lost feeling in some of his fingers. That may be why just a couple of weeks before, his fingers lost control of his steering wheel. He crashed into incoming traffic in Austin.

Copyright 2014 KUT 90.5

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.