In 1873, the year Father Damien arrived at Kalawao, a Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen in Norway made a breakthrough discovery. He identified the cause of leprosy—a bacillus known today as Mycobacterium leprae. This bacillus caused severe damage to nerves, skin and eyes. Patients suffered from a loss of feeling and muscle paralysis, most often in their feet and hands.
The discovery that leprosy was caused by a microorganism was the first step in treatment of the disease. It also led to social changes because the disease was no longer thought to be hereditary and the belief that God punished people with leprosy was weakened.
Over the years many “cures” were identified and tested. Hawai`i was the focus for much of this research, especially when the federal government built an entire facility, the US Leprosy Investigation Station at Kalawao, devoted to finding a cure for the disease. Despite the promise of Goto baths, chaulmoogra oil and other treatments, a real cure wasn’t discovered until the 1940s when sulfone drugs were developed at the US Public Health Service National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.
Leprosy, now known in the United States and other nations as Hansen’s disease in an attempt to eliminate the centuries-old stigma, is transmitted generally by direct, person-to-person contact, usually repetitive, over a prolonged period of time. However, it is one of the least contagious of all communicable diseases, and only about four to five percent of the world’s population is even susceptible to it. The World Health Organization estimates there are approximately 1.15 million registered cases of Hansen’s disease around the world in 55 countries.
Today at Kalaupapa and in Honolulu, people who are registered with the State of Hawai`i, Department of Health Hansen’s disease community program continue to receive treatment for the effects of Hansen’s disease. They have seen major changes in the level of knowledge about the disease, drug treatments, and in society’s attitudes. Around the world, public education, acceptance within communities, and patient demands for their human rights lead the continuing effort to end discrimination.