James Krahenbuhl, director of the Health Resources Service Administration's National Hansen's Disease Program in Baton Rouge, La., said that although leprosy dates back to biblical times, researchers do not clearly understand how it is transmitted.
Leprosy is a slow, chronic disease that attacks the peripheral nervous system and motor skills, often leading to disability and disfigurement. Due to changes in immigrant relocation, leprosy is being diagnosed throughout the United States, Krahenbuhl said.
"We believe there are more cases of leprosy not identified due to the lack of awareness about the disease among physicians in the United States, which is leading to misdiagnosis and wrong treatments for patients who are left to suffer with the debilitating damage caused by this disease," Krahenbuhl said in a statement.
Since the onset of infection and symptoms can take three to 10 years, it difficult for researchers to determine where or how people acquire the disease, Krahenbuhl said. Leprosy can be fully treated with medicine when diagnosed in early stages but once the disease has advanced nerve damage cannot be reversed.
Krahenbuhl is scheduled to lead a symposium Dec. 7-11 at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene meeting in New Orleans.