In Battle of Diseases, TB Vanquished Leprosy

Ancient remains unravel medical mystery, researchers contend

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Published on February 09, 2005

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 9, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Germs preserved inside bodies nearly 2,000 years old suggest tuberculosis beat back the Biblical scourge of leprosy in an epic battle of diseases, according to a new British study.

While the findings don't have any immediate impact on modern-day treatment for the two diseases, the findings may solve a "historical mystery that has been puzzling archaeologists and historians for some time," said study co-author Helen D. Donoghue, a researcher with University College London.

The mystery is this: Did leprosy and tuberculosis combine to gang up on people in ancient times, or did one provide protection against the other? And how did this co-existence affect the evolution of the two diseases, only one of which remains a major killer today?

According to Donoghue, both diseases have plagued mankind for millennia, and while leprosy seems to have arisen later than TB, leprosy is still quite old. There's ample evidence of leprosy in Egypt from around 300 B.C., Donoghue said, and it appears to have spread later to the west as well as northward into Europe.

One of the most feared diseases of all time, leprosy causes trademark skin lesions, nerve damage and loss of sensation. Its sufferers were often ostracized and sent to leper colonies because the disease was considered extremely contagious.

Leprosy eventually fizzled out in most of Europe, but remains a threat today in places like Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, Donoghue said. The disease strikes an estimated 500,000 people a year.

By contrast, tuberculosis, which attacks the respiratory system, continues to kill millions of people each year worldwide.

As part of their examination into ancient leprosy, Donoghue and colleagues looked at the shrouded body of a Jerusalem man deposited into a sealed rock chamber sometime in the first century A.D.

The man hadn't been buried twice, as was the custom, suggesting his family had some reason to avoid his corpse, the researchers said. "A disease like leprosy caused great fear in the past, and that may have been why this individual was left in a sealed-up and hidden niche in the rock tomb," Donoghue said.

The man's body, which showed signs of tuberculosis infection, turned out to bear DNA traces of infection with leprosy bacteria, too. Investigating in other sites, the researchers found bodies from ancient Egypt, medieval Sweden, 10th century Hungary and first century Palestine that also showed signs of infection with both tuberculosis and leprosy.

"Because tuberculosis kills more quickly than leprosy, and because it is spread from person to person more quickly than leprosy, we believe that where you have both diseases together, people will die of tuberculosis [first]," Donoghue said. "Over time, this will lead to leprosy gradually becoming eliminated," she reasoned.

Previously, some researchers had suspected that infection with one of the diseases might have provided immunity against the other.

Today, drugs can treat both leprosy and tuberculosis, although they aren't always available in poor countries and must be taken for months, the researchers said. Tuberculosis remains a major killer, especially in sub-Sahara Africa where HIV and AIDS have devastated the immune systems of millions.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B.

More information

Learn more about leprosy from the National Library of Medicine.

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