Leprosy is an increasingly rare chronic infection that dates to ancient times. Surprisingly, most movies portray the condition sympathetically.

    A notable un-sympathetic character is the leprous father of Robert the Bruce from the Mel Gibson film "Braveheart." The skin of this ruthless royal deteriorates as his deviousness develops. The skin changes seen are a result of the inflammation that develops against the leprosy bacteria. This can result in an enlarged nose similar to that seen in acne rosacea (WC Fields). Rare in Western countries, leprosy is still prevalent in the third world.

"City of Joy."

Most others characters with leprosy in movies are shown sympathetically. Disabled actor Nabil Shaban portrays Anouar, the leader of a group of lepers in India. Leprosy is caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, which contrary to popular belief, is difficult to contract. In leprosy, the immune reaction to the bacteria causes nerve inflammation and nerve loss, resulting in tissue destruction and sometimes loss of limbs. This film shows people with leprosy fight against ostracization and achieve respect.

In "Papillon," Steve McQueen escapes a notorious French prison. On the lam in the jungle, he encounters a smuggler with a severe case of leprosy. Depending on the immune system's reaction to the bacteria, patients can anywhere from a few flat skin patches to extensive bumps (lepromatous form). Though initially shown to shock, this fellow proves to be an ally to McQueen.

To avoid the centuries-old stigma against those with leprosy, some advocate changing the official name of the condition to "Hansen's disease." Former teen pop trio, "Hanson," were unavailable for comment.

One of the more poignant aspects in the Roman epic, "Ben Hur" is the pain Charleton Heston suffers learning that his mother and sister have contracted leprosy while imprisoned. By an act of God at the movie's end, they are cured of this debilitating disease. In modern times, treating leprosy requires long courses of a series of antibiotics. Even so, if a patient's immune system is not as strong a Roman chariot, treatment attempts may be thwarted. Ongoing research, with perhaps some Heavenly help, will hopefully eradicate this condition.

 As a young Che, Bernal reaches out...

 ...to a fellow afflicted with leprosy.

 Despite his extensive spots...

...risk of transmission is low. No gloves required.

One cannot underestimate the healing power of human touch. "The Motorcycle Diaries" illustrates Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara's early years traveling South America as a medical student. A derm moment occurs during a poignant scene in a leper colony. Gael Garcia Bernal, having shed the blond locks seen in "Bad Education," reveals Guevara's slow enlightenment about the plight of the common man. Che learns that leprosy, caused by relatively non-contagious bacteria, is not usually transmitted by touch. So, unlike that colony's doctors and nurses, he decides to shake the patient's hand without a protective glove. For those with skin conditions, including eczema & psoriasis, physical contact with others can be missing in their lives. Reaching out reaffirms their humanity, recognizing the individual, rather than the illness.


© 1996-2008 Vail Reese M.D.

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