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Volume 21, Number 12—December 2015
Etymologia

Etymologia: Leprosy

Suggested citation for this article

Leprosy [lepʹrə-se]

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Thumbnail of Dorsal surface of the hands of a patient with a case of nodular lepromatous leprosy, which under the newer World Health Organization (WHO) standards, is classified as multibacillary (MB), leprosy.

Figure. Dorsal surface of the hands of a patient with a case of nodular lepromatous leprosy, which under the newer World Health Organization (WHO) standards, is classified as multibacillary (MB), leprosy.

From the Greek lepros, “scaly,” leprosy is a chronic infectious disease of man caused by Mycobacterium leprae and principally affects the peripheral nerves and skin (Figure). The earliest known skeletal evidence for leprosy has been found in India and dates to 2000 bce. This finding suggests that the first textual references to leprosy are in ancient Sanskrit hymns of the Atharva Veda. The armies of Alexander the Great may have brought leprosy from India to western Asia circa 326 bce, and it spread further west when Roman armies campaigning in Asia Minor and Syria returned home (62 bce). The Romans referred to leprosy as elephantiasis graecorum and could distinguish between the similar symptoms of lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis arabum.

Norwegian physician Armauer Hansen identified the causative agent, Mycobacterium leprae, in 1873; however, it was successfully identified as a bacterium only in 1879 by a young German physician, Albert Neisser, who attempted to take credit for the discovery. Today, leprosy is also known as Hansen disease.

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References

  1. Bechler  RG. Hansen versus Neisser: scientific controversies over the ‘discovery’ of the bacillus of leprosy [in Portuguese]. Hist Cienc Saude Manguinhos. 2012;19:81542 . DOIPubMed
  2. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. 32nd ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders; 2012.
  3. Hulse  EV. Leprosy and ancient Egypt. Lancet. 1972;2:12034 . DOIPubMed
  4. Robbins  G, Tripathy  VM, Misra  VN, Mohanty  RK, Shinde  VS, Gray  KM, Ancient skeletal evidence for leprosy in India (2000 B.C.). PLoS ONE. 2009;4:e5669 . DOIPubMed

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Figure

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Suggested citation for this article: Etymologia: Leprosy. Emerg Infect Dis 2015 Dec [date cited]. http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid2112.ET2112

DOI: 10.3201/eid2112.et2112

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Table of Contents – Volume 21, Number 12—December 2015

Page created: October 30, 2015
Page updated: October 30, 2015
Page reviewed: October 30, 2015
The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors' affiliated institutions. Use of trade names is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by any of the groups named above.
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