Leprosy is a disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, which causes damage to the skin and the peripheral nervous system. The disease develops slowly (from six months to 40 years!) and results in skin lesions and deformities, most often affecting the cooler places on the body (for example, eyes, nose, earlobes, hands, feet, and testicles). The skin lesions and deformities can be very disfiguring and are the reason that infected individuals historically were considered outcasts in many cultures. Although human-to-human transmission is the primary source of infection, three other species can carry and (rarely) transfer M. leprae to humans: chimpanzees, mangabey monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos. The disease is termed a chronic granulomatous disease, similar to tuberculosis, because it produces inflammatory nodules (granulomas) in the skin and nerves over time.
Leprosy is caused mainly by Mycobacterium leprae, a rod-shaped bacillus that is an obligate intracellular (only grows inside of certain human and animal cells) bacterium. M. leprae is termed an "acid fast" bacterium because of its chemical characteristics. When special stains are used for microscopic analysis, it stains red on a blue background due to mycolic acid content in its cell walls. The Ziehl-Neelsen stain is an example of the special staining techniques used to view the acid-fast organisms under the microscope.
Currently, the organisms cannot be cultured on artificial media. The bacteria take an extremely long time to reproduce inside of cells (about 12-14 days as compared to minutes to hours for most bacteria). The bacteria grow best at 80.9 F-86 F, so cooler areas of the body tend to develop the infection. The bacteria grow very well in the body's macrophages (a type of immune system cell) and Schwann cells (cells that cover and protect nerve axons). M. leprae is genetically related to M. tuberculosis (the type of bacteria that cause tuberculosis) and other mycobacteria that infect humans. As with malaria, patients with leprosy produce anti-endothelial antibodies (antibodies against the lining tissues of blood vessels), but the role of these antibodies in these diseases is still under investigation.