History of Leprosy
Ever since Biblical times, people have been fearful about leprosy. Historically, those affected by leprosy have been cut off from family and friends, driven away from their communities or even killed. Fortunately, the story of those with leprosy today can be quite different.
Although it once existed in Europe, in anywhere from 1 to 2000 BC, it has since faded out and no one really knows why. There are still many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where leprosy still exists as a public health concern. In these areas, it still retains its moniker "The Living Death."
Leprosy is no longer a health concern in North America but it may be surprising to learn that even Canada has struggled with leprosy in its past. Leprosy first came to Canada primarily through immigration; it is also thought to have been brought through infected sailors as well. The disease existed in Canada from the 19th century until the mid 20th century. Even then, the stigma and fear drove people to cruel acts.
During this time, anyone with leprosy was sent to one of two places - D'Arcy Island off the coast of British Columbia or Sheldrake Island, a government-determined lazaretto near New Brunswick. D'Arcy Island was reserved for "Chinese lepers", where they were provided with food and basic supplies but were essentially left, uncared for and alone to die. The lazaretto in New Brunswick was designated for the "white lepers". The men, women and children confined here endured the same treatment and many tried to escape.
Today leprosy is rare in Canada and is brought in through immigration in small numbers. Tropical disease units of major hospitals usually treat such cases. Medical professionals describe the disease as only "mildly infectious" and up to 95% of the world's population is naturally immune. Leprosy is not a public health concern in Canada and is, thankfully, a part of Canada's past.
Leprosy: Modern History
- 1873: Dr. G. H. A. Hansen of Norway discovers M. leprae bacilli, indicating for the first time that leprosy was not a curse brought upon people for evil deeds, as it was previously believed.
- 1940s: Doctors begin using the drug Dapsone to treat leprosy. Sadly, Dapsone only slowed the progression of leprosy.
- 1950s: Mission surgeon Dr. Paul Brand pioneered surgical solutions to claw hand and foot drop - two disabilities from leprosy. His wife, Dr. Margaret Brand, poured her energies into caring for patients whose eyes were affected by leprosy.
- 1982: The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT), a combination of Dapsone, Rifampicin and Clofazimine to cure leprosy. TLM adopts the use of this new successful drug blend. Since 1982, MDT has made a dramatic impact in the fight against leprosy. You can read more about the cure of leprosy here.
- 2002: Over 12 million children, women and men have been cured of leprosy since 1985.
- 2003: About 4 million people live with the permanent effects of leprosy.
Work has been progressing steadily towards a vaccination for leprosy. American Leprosy Missions, along with the support of TLM Canada, is continuing to help fund research through the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, Washington, USA.
You learn more about The Leprosy Mission Canada’s impact in the fight against leprosy on the History of TLMC page.