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History of Leprosy

History of leprosy

Leprosy: An Ancient Disease

Scholars believe Leprosy to be among ten of the oldest infectious diseases that still affect society today. Even since its first description in writing, about 4,000 years ago, stigma and fear of leprosy have been widespread. Historically, those affected by leprosy have been cut-off from family and friends, driven away from their communities or even killed.


Leprosy is theorized to have origins in ancient India, but outbreaks of the disease have occurred on every continent where people live. The disease has since been eliminated from many areas of globe, where it was once a public health concern. Unfortunately, so little is known about leprosy transmission that it is not fully understood why leprosy has disappeared in those regions. There are many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where leprosy is still prevalent.

The Leprosy Mission

The Leprosy Mission was founded by Wellesley Bailey in the United Kingdom. He first came into contact with people affected by leprosy when he was working as a teacher in India and felt called to help this forgotten population. In 1892, Mr. and Mrs. Watt of Guelph, Ontario, opened their home to Wellesley Bailey. This initial encounter with The Mission inspired Canadians to come alongside as the first North American supporters.
A Cure:

In 1982 the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) to cure leprosy. This cure is rapidly and effectively used in treatment and is identified as a successful drug blend.

We are extremely grateful to Novartis Pharmaceuticals and the World Health Organization for generously partnering to make the cure for leprosy available free of charge. TLMC continues to fund the cost of case detection, diagnosis, distribution and medical intervention, retraining, rehabilitation, care after cure and community development. However, without the generosity of Novartis and World Health Organization the cost of our work would be significantly higher.

The Future

We must not remain in the past. Our vision is of a world where leprosy, its causes and its consequences are confined to history. To do so, we must better understand the disease, transmission and how it can be prevented. Developing a vaccination is one exciting area of research that is a key component of that research. We wholeheartedly support our colleagues at American Leprosy Mission who are leading the initiative in searching for a vaccine.

Leprosy in Canada?

Leprosy existed in Canada from the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. 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 to die, without any care. 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 basically relegated to the history books in Canada. The few cases that are treated are found among new Canadians who have been infected in their countries of origin. Leprosy is capably treated in tropical disease units of major hospitals and is not considered highly infectious.

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View a Timeline of the
History of Leprosy here:

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