India Plays Host to Earliest Case of Leprosy
Posted on August 17, 2009
Currently taking up residence at the Deccan College Post-Graduate Research Institute in Pune, India, a skeleton unearthed in Rajasthan, India after 4,000 years of rest bears the earliest recorded signs of leprosy. Not only is this first instance of the disease being found in India, but it has revealed new information concerning the disease throughout history.
Literary evidence for the history of leprosy in Asia comes from the Atharva Veda, a three thousand year old Vedic text that discusses medical conditions. Before this discovery, however, skeletal evidence was relegated to the 5th or 4th century B.C. in Thailand and Egypt.
Studies of the M. leprae bacteria presented in a 2005 issue of the journal Science suggested to theories concerning the origins and spread of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease: one suggests it has its beginnings in the Late Pleistocene era, beginning in Africa and spreading from there, while the other places its origins in India during the Late Holocene period.
The findings, published in the online public journal PLoS ONE on May 27th, concluded that a possible African origin of the disease suggests it migrated to India before the period of the Late Holocene, around the third millennium BC. This was a period of considerable interaction between Africa and the Indus Civilization, and as such offers up compelling evidence for its African origins.
Gwen Robbins of Appalachian State University, one of the scholars who worked on the remains, is attempting to extract DNA to determine whether or not the strain of leprosy that infected the unfortunate individual is similar to those found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. These findings could help provide evidence for the spread of leprosy throughout the world.
Leper colonies existed as far back as the Middle Ages due to a relative misunderstanding of the disease. Despite still being highly misunderstood due to the inherent difficulty in studying it, it is now curable and not very contagious. It is spread only through droplets from the mouth and nose, and only through excessive exposure to an infected individual.