Emory's TravelWell Clinic becomes national resource for leprosy patients

By Janet Christenbury | Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Nov. 28, 2012

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Hansen's disease (leprosy) is considered rare in the U.S. According to the NHDP, there are currently approximately 6,500 cases, with about 3,300 cases that require active medical management.

Emory Healthcare's TravelWell clinic, a specialty clinic designed to care for patients pre- and post-traveling abroad, has been awarded a contract by the National Hansen's Disease Program (NHDP) to treat patients suffering from Hansen's disease, otherwise known as leprosy. That makes TravelWell one of just 16 federally supported outpatient clinics in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and the only clinic in Georgia to treat patients through the NHDP.  

TravelWell and long-time medical director Phyllis Kozarsky, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory, have been caring for Hansen's disease patients for years. Infectious disease expert, Jessica Fairley, is now leading the charge at the clinic to care for this population of patients. Colleagues Henry Wu and Roberta Dismukes are also involved in the care of these patients at TravelWell, which is located at Emory University Hospital Midtown.    

About 6,500 cases of Hansen's disease in U.S.

Hansen's disease (leprosy) is considered rare in the U.S. According to the NHDP, there are currently approximately 6,500 cases, with about 3,300 cases that require active medical management.  

It is a chronic bacterial disease that primarily affects the skin, peripheral nerves and upper airway. Once feared as a highly contagious and devastating disease, it is well established that Hansen's disease is not highly transmissible, is very treatable, and, with early diagnosis and treatment, is not disabling. It is estimated that about 95 percent of the population is actually immune to the disease.  

"Because it is not seen often, many times Hansen's disease goes undiagnosed or is diagnosed incorrectly, increasing the risk of more complications," says Fairley, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Emory University School of Medicine. "If caught early, we can prescribe antibiotics and prevent major nerve damage." 

Medications to cure a patient of Hansen's disease need to be taken for one to two years once a diagnosis is confirmed. Patients become noninfectious after taking only a few doses of medication. Physicians continue to monitor patients for any nerve or extremity damage or drug reactions during and following treatment.  

Now with TravelWell's contractual agreement with the National Hansen's Disease Program, patients throughout the state of Georgia and the Southeast will be referred to the clinic for expert care and treatment.  

"We are excited to be named as one of the few federally supported National Hansen's Disease Program clinics this year," says Kozarsky. "Our physicians have quite an expertise in this area, strengthened even more with the resources, program development and training protocols now being provided by the national organization." 

In September 2012, Emory's TravelWell hosted experts from the NHDP for clinical training, as well as a Grand Rounds presentation for the Division of Infectious Diseases and Department of Dermatology.