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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Leprosy, from old Spittals to modern times

The Berwick-on-Tweed leper hospital (Spittal) is said to have been established in 1234, at what is now called Spittal Beach. This coincides with the middle of the peak of reported leprosy in Great Britain as being 12th and 13th centuries. London eventually had 10 hospitals for lepers on main routes out of the city. The last recorded case of leprosy in London was said to be in 1559. St Bartholomew was associated with lepers in medieval times, with associations between leper hospitals and churches named after the saint both in Berwick and near London. The name leprosy is derived from the Greek word for scales (lepra), the disease discussed by Hippocrates, with evidence that it was known in Ancient Egypt at least 6000 years ago.

What was like to be leper in medieval times? Lepers lost their rights under common law, including property rights. They were excluded from places where people gathered. They had to carry a bell to warn others of their presence. They were isolated, typically sent away to remote hospitals with chapels, as lepers were expected to follow Christian rule. Hospitals were usually run by religious orders. The reportedly well-funded Berwick hospital was later by Royal Charter of James 1 of Scotland in the charge of the King's Chaplain, Thomas Lauder.

RC St Clemens, ex Benedictine Cloisters, Bad Iburg

Squints or hagioscopes allowed people with leprosy and other infectious diseases to view the sacraments from outside a church of without coming into contact with the healthy members of the congregation.

Historically people with leprosy were recognized because of resulting deformities and were shunned because of fear of contagion. Untreated, leprosy could progress, causing serious disease and deformity to nerves, skin, nerves, limbs and face, including flattening of the nose due to destruction of underlying cartilage, and associated changes in the quality of speech.

A stone tower was erected at the Spittal in Berwick in 1369 as look-out point and protection from raids over the nearby border by the Scots. The buildings were demolished and nothing above ground remains.

Red staining of organism that causes leprosy
We now know that the disease is caused by a bacterium similar to the one that causes tuberculosis: the leprosy version - mycobacterium leprae - discovered by Paul Hansen, leading to the eponymous name Hansen's disease for leprosy. There is a wide spectrum of clinical features of leprosy. The main route of spread to susceptible people considered to be by nasal droplets (from coughing and sneezing). Risk of acquiring the infection appears linked to causes of impaired cell-mediated immunity, prolonged exposure to infected patients, and to malnutrition. Although infants may develop the disease, the incubation period may be as long as 30 years.

Does leprosy still exist? The World Health Organization  records official data on leprosy from up to 120 national programmes in Member States, results published in  the WHO's Weekly Epidemiological Record. From this data, the WHO estimates that one person in 10,000 is affected by the disease (prevalence). New case detection is estimated to have decreased from around 760,000 in 2002 to around 200,000 in 2011 . With early combination drug treatment before deformity (usually for 6-12 months), outcome of the disease is much improved. However, patients with treated leprosy may still be ostracised, especially in rural communities, even if patients are known to have been treated,  because of ignorance about the low risk of disease transmission and about the success of treatment: people are considered no longer infectious after around one week of treatment and it is estimated that over 10 million people estimate cured of leprosy in past 2 decades.

Professor Carole Rawcliffe, Medieval History, University of East Anglia
Leprosy in Medieval England, 2006.

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