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Travel Warning: Leprosy is on the Rise in Florida

When you think of Florida, you probably think of sand and sunshine, not leprosy. After all, many assume the ancient illness is a thing of the past.

This rare tropical disease hasn’t been a concern in the US for over 30 years. But that could soon change thanks to a recent surge of cases.

Today, we’re bringing you all the details you need to know before your next beach vacation.

Let’s dive in!

While armadillos in Florida may harbor the leprosy, you're more likely to catch it from a person you spend a lot of time with
Armadillos can carry leprosy, but you’re more likely to get it from another person

Report Warns That Leprosy May Be Endemic in Florida

Florida is known for its warm weather and gorgeous beaches. Soon, however, it may also be known for a strange disease.

Leprosy, which has affected humans for centuries, is making a home in the Sunshine State. Researchers say case numbers have increased dramatically over the last ten years. While the US recorded 159 incidents in multiple states in 2020, one out of five afflicted people lived in Florida.

While leprosy can pop up anywhere, these days, it’s rare in the US. Scientists once thought these cases originated from people who recently traveled internationally. Now researchers believe the disease may be endemic in Florida.

As of August 2023, Florida reported 15 total leprosy cases for the year. Most residents diagnosed with the illness live in the central part of the state.

What Is Leprosy?

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, has existed since ancient times. A slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae causes the illness. Once the bacteria enters your bloodstream, it attacks multiple organs like the eyes, skin, and nasal lining. Typically, it also damages nerve endings.

Symptoms include a rash or skin lesions, usually accompanied by color changes and loss of feeling. These lesions may cause red, dry, or flaky skin. Doctors diagnose leprosy by taking a small skin sample and searching for bacteria under a microscope.

Leprosy is easy to treat with antibiotics. But this disease can have devastating effects. If left untreated, you could experience paralysis, blindness, and deformities of the face and limbs.

These might be more threatening to you: 7 Dangerous Creatures in Your House.

Why Is Leprosy on the Rise in Florida?

Leprosy didn’t always exist in the US. The first documented cases here occurred in Louisiana in the 18th century. After 100 years, the disease made it all the way to California. But it remained a rare condition despite the spread.

Until recently, leprosy hasn’t been very common in the US. Nearly all instances could trace back to people who contracted the disease through international travel. But recent cases, especially those in Florida, suggest it’s now spreading independently of travel. That means the illness likely has a source inside US borders.

Doctors aren’t sure what’s causing leprosy to spread in Florida. Most incidents don’t fit the traditional risk factors, which include repeated exposure to an infected person or animal. Armadillos, certain species of squirrels, and some primates carry the disease. But none of the folks diagnosed in Florida reported exposure to these sources.

Dig deeper into the armadillo factor. SERIOUSLY: Can Armadillos Give You Leprosy?

Should You Worry About Leprosy When Traveling to Florida?

You might be worried about the increasing number of leprosy cases in Florida. After all, this infection comes with pretty terrible side effects.

The good news is that leprosy is totally treatable. Although once considered a terrifying infection, it’s easy to diagnose and treat. Most people who catch the disease go on to live healthy lives.

Here’s some more good news. Leprosy is still extremely rare and pretty tough to catch. You have to spend several months in close contact with an infected person to get this disease. 

Armadillos, which are frequent carriers, are thought to be the primary cause of transmission within the US. Doctors recommend avoiding places where these animals live and advise against handling them.

If diagnosed with leprosy, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic regimen. These drugs work by eliminating the bacteria that causes the infection. While treatment usually lasts anywhere from six to 12 months, most patients recover completely without lasting effects.

Young Asian woman sitting on a bed taking medicines in hand with a glass of water. She may be taking antibiotics to get rid of the leprosy bacteria.
Leprosy is caused by bacteria, which can be treated with antibiotics

Do Leprosy Communities Still Exist in Florida?

Despite Florida’s recent increase in cases, the state has never had its own leprosy community. However, these colonies were once prevalent in other places.

Leprosy was greatly misunderstood before a Norwegian doctor discovered the bacteria that causes it. For years, most people believed it was an incurable disease that spread easily. Many countries, including the US, created leprosy communities to curb transmission.

At one time, officials forced people with leprosy to leave their homes. These folks ended up in communities in Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. Most spent the rest of their lives in isolation.

By the 1960s, American scientists had learned that the disease wasn’t as scary as the world once thought. Leprosy colonies in the US were abolished, and the patients who lived in them were finally free to leave. 

But some people, especially those who came to the communities as kids, decided to stay. Today, many former patients still live in these areas.

Need help planning your Florida vacation? Check out the Florida Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal.

Don’t Cancel Your Travel Plans

Leprosy is still a scary word to many people. For centuries, people thought this infection was incurable. But these days, we know it’s hard to spread and easy to treat.

If you’re planning a Florida vacation, don’t let concerns about leprosy stop you. Just use common sense, take easy preventive measures, and soak up the sunshine!

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