Like most countries around the world, Ireland has a long history of leprosy. St Stephen's Green in Dublin was once a leprosy colony, and occasional "leper squints" remain in churches - holes in the wall where lepers who had been ostracised from society could peer in at ceremonies. We know that by 550 A.D. leprosy reached Ireland. Incidence of the disease grew enormously during the Crusades. It affected huge numbers of people in northern Europe, possibly a quarter of the population at one time. That percentage was drastically reduced by the Black Plague, which killed many people already infected and weakened by leprosy.
In 1873, the year Father Damien arrived at Kalawao, a Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen in Norway made a breakthrough discovery. He identified the cause of leprosy—a bacillus known today as Mycobacterium leprae. The discovery that leprosy was caused by a microorganism was the first step in treatment of the disease. It also led to social changes because the disease was no longer thought to be hereditary and the belief that God punished people with leprosy was weakened. Despite the promise of Goto baths, chaulmoogra oil and other treatments, a real cure wasn’t discovered until the 1940s when sulfone drugs were developed at the US Public Health Service National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. The World Health Organization estimates there are approximately 1.15 million registered cases of Hansen’s disease around the world in 55 countries.
While leprosy has been eliminated here, Ireland has left a lasting mark on the fight against the disease because an Irish chemist discovered part of the cure. It was while working on tuberculosis in the 1950s Vincent C. Barry and his team at Trinity College Dublin synthesised a compound called B663 (clofazimine) that proved effective against the bacterium that causes leprosy. His research paved the way for the multi-drug antibiotic therapy that the World Health Organisation (WHO) currently provides free to patients in regions of the world where leprosy is still endemic.
Dr Vincent Barry's discovery was recognised in his centenary year at an event at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on December 9th.
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