Leprosy still exists in New Zealand, with new cases in Canterbury – Stuff.co.nz

Posted: November 21, 2021 at 9:34 pm

While leprosy might seem like a disease in far-off places from a time long ago, it continues to be diagnosed in New Zealand, with the number of Canterbury cases surging this year.

Over the last 10 years, a total of 38 cases of leprosy had been diagnosed in New Zealand, almost all in the North Island, Environmental Science and Research data shows.

In the 10 years to 2020, there had been only one case of leprosy in Canterbury. However, in the first half of this year alone, two people in the region were diagnosed with the disease, out of a total of four cases nationwide so far this year.

Research published in 2015 found that most cases involved people who had lived overseas in the decade before diagnosis, either in Pacific countries including Samoa and Kiribati, south and southeast Asia, or Africa.

READ MORE:* Young Aucklanders join global fight to curb leprosy discrimination* 1907: The leprosy colony * Covid-19: 12 new cases, 10 from the same flight, but none from community transmission

Leprosy is caused by bacteria that attack the nerves in people's hands and feet.

If left untreated, the disease will spread into the nerves connecting to the brain and spinal cord, leading to hands and feet "clawing" inwards, blindness, disfigurement and the loss of whole limbs.

The disease was once thought incorrectly to be highly infectious. The first cure was discovered in the 1940s, and it is now treated using a combination of drugs, though these need to be taken over a period of months or years for the person to be leprosy-free.

Doctors at a leprosy hospital in Pakistan are vowing to continue their work until the disease is wiped out completely. (First published in August 2020.)

Because of this, the once-feared condition is generally believed to be present only in the developing world, mainly in communities with restricted access to public healthcare.

But the authors of a paper published in 2015 warned New Zealand doctors, especially those in Wellington and Auckland, to brush up on the symptoms of leprosy, which remained a problem elsewhere in the world.

According to World Health Organisation data, there were 202,162 new leprosy cases registered globally in 2019.

About 4000 people develop leprosy every year in the Western Pacific region, according to the Ministry of Health.


Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay says the stigma around leprosy creates barriers to diagnosis and treatment.

Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay said in January that the stigmatisation of infectious diseases, including leprosy, creates barriers when it comes to testing and engaging in care.

She said we should all do our part in breaking down the stigma which surrounds infectious diseases in New Zealand as it only adds to isolation, fear and misinformation.

Near the Canterburys port of Lyttleton, tamahua (Quail Island) was used as a leprosy colony between 1906 and 1925.


Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour could have a future as an MIQ facility, suggests architect Michael O'Sullivan.

Among those shipped to the island was Sam Te Iringa, who'd been ostracised in his community.

Historian Benjamin Kingsbury, writing in The Dark Island: Leprosy in New Zealand and the Quail Island Colony, said Te Iringa found himself in a "run-down colony without a nurse".

Te Iringa went on "strike" but since patients did little work, it wasn't a very effective strike, Kingsbury wrote.


Matiu Somes Island was once a quarantine location for lepers.

Te Iringa died on the island in 1922 and was buried there, but his burial site was a mystery.

About 16,000 people now visit the island annually, and a local architect this year suggested it should be used as an MIQ facility.

Wellington's most notorious case of suspected leprosy was that of Kim Lee, a fruit-shop owner, who was diagnosed with the condition in the early 1900s.

He was sent to Matiu-Somes Island to be quarantined. But after his fellows on the island protested, he was exiled to Mokopuna Island, a rock about 200 metres long and 80m wide and separated from the main island by a 50m channel.

Lee lived there in a cave for several months, before dying alone in March 1904. It is now believed he was suffering from tuberculosis or an autoimmune disease, though Mokopuna's nickname of "Leper Island" has stuck despite this.

Number of leprosy cases in NZ from 2011 to date:

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Leprosy still exists in New Zealand, with new cases in Canterbury - Stuff.co.nz

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