Leprosy Disease Understanding

Leprosy History Origins: Separating Historical Fact from Enduring Fiction

What is leprosy’s history and origins? Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is one of the oldest infectious diseases known to humankind. It has been a scourge of humanity since antiquity, causing physical impairments and devastating effects on skin and nerves. This led to prejudice, fear, and segregation in all societies since ancient times, forcing patients to live in poverty and loneliness.

The first descriptions of leprosy are found in osteo-archaeological remains from South Asia dating back to 2000 BC.[1] Molecular studies suggest that the disease spread along the migration paths of early human groups from East Africa towards Asia.[2] It established itself in eastern and central Europe, the Mediterranean Basin about 40,000 years ago, and in the Americas in the last 500 years.[3]

Theories on the Origins of Leprosy: Asia vs Africa

While it’s impossible to definitively establish where or when leprosy emerged and spread across continents, it’s likely that it may have developed simultaneously in more than one area of the world. Ancient manuscripts suggest that leprosy existed in India, China, and Africa since ancient times.[4] However, these accounts do not provide a clear origin of Hansen’s disease.

In ancient medicine in South Asia, the term “Kushtha” was used to indicate skin diseases in general, including leprosy. References to leprosy are also found in the “Ebers” and “Brugsch” Papyri, dated between 1350–1200 BC, describing leprosy among slaves coming from Sudan. In ancient Chinese literature, the “Nei Ching”, considered the oldest medical text in existence, written around 500 BC, described many signs which could be associated with Hansen’s disease, such as nodules, ulcerations, numbness, and loss of eyebrows. [5]

Spread to Europe and the Americas

Historians believe that leprosy was introduced into Greece by the troops of Darius of Persia during the 4th century BC. The disease was then spread by the troops of Greek Macedonian king Alexander the Great. From Greece, leprosy spread to the rest of Europe and eventually to the Americas.[6]

Shift from “Leprosy” to “Hansen’s Disease”

The shift from the term “leprosy” to “Hansen’s disease” was an attempt to reduce the stigma associated with the disease. The name change was intended to honor the Norwegian scientist Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered the bacterium that causes leprosy in 1874. The new name aimed to emphasize the medical nature of the disease and to dispel the misconceptions and superstitions that have historically surrounded it.[7]

Today, leprosy continues to shatter thousands of lives worldwide, especially in Asia. Despite being treatable, people living with this disease are commonly shunned by society and driven to seclusion. GFA-supported leprosy ministry, Sisters of Compassion, and other national workers are ministering to the needs of leprosy patients in Asia, bestowing dignity to those whom others have rejected.

You can help bring love and life to people suffering with leprosy. Your gift to GFA-supported leprosy ministry enables national workers to meet the basic needs of many patients and help them understand God’s constant love. Donate to the leprosy ministry today and help bring relief and healing to those affected by this devastating disease.

Learn more about leprosy disease understanding

[1] Robbins, Gwen, V Mushrif Tripathy, V N Misra, R K Mohanty, V S Shinde, Kelsey M Gray, and Malcolm D Schug. “Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.).” PloS One 4, no. 5 (May 27, 2009): e5669. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005669.
[2] Mark, Samuel. “Early Human Migrations (ca. 13,000 Years Ago) or Postcontact Europeans for the Earliest Spread of Mycobacterium Leprae and Mycobacterium Lepromatosis to the Americas.” Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases 2017 (2017): 6491606. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/6491606.
[3] Marc Monot, Nadine Honoré, Thierry Garnier, Romulo Araoz, Jean-Yves Coppee, Celine Lacroix, Samba Sow, John S. Spencer, Richard W. Truman, Diana L. Williams, Robert Gelber, Marcos Virmond, Beatrice Flageul, Sang-Nae Cho, Baohong Ji, Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, Jacinto Convit, Saroj Young, Paul E. Fine, Voahangy Rasolofo, Patrick J. Brennan, and Stewart T. Cole, “On the Origin of Leprosy,” Science 308, no. 5724 (2005): 1040–42, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1109759.
[4] Santacroce, Luigi, Raffaele Del Prete, Ioannis Alexandros Charitos, and Lucrezia Bottalico. “Mycobacterium Leprae: A Historical Study on the Origins of Leprosy and Its Social Stigma.” Le Infezioni in Medicina 29, no. 4 (December 10, 2021): 623–32. https://doi.org/10.53854/liim-2904-18.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.