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For a time scientists even entertained the possibility of transmission by insect bites.In the late 20th century, experiments with a mouse model of the disease showed that transmission is indeed possible through the intact lining of the nose and through breaks in the skin but not via the mouth, lungs, or digestive tract or through unbroken skin.The geographic distribution of the leprosy bacillus is another mystery.

The route of transmission of leprosy remained a matter of debate.

At one time “lepers,” as those with the disease were long called, were ostracized as unclean and were gathered into isolated “leper colonies” in order to keep them out of sight, to control their contagiousness, and to offer them what little treatment was available.

In reality, the leprosy bacillus is not highly infectious, in most cases passing from one person to another only after prolonged and close contact (as, for instance, among family members).

The dramatic decline in leprosy prevalence was attributed to a resolution passed in 1991 by the World Health Assembly (the governing body of the World Health Organization [WHO]) that was designed to eliminate the disease by 2000. (A bacillus is a rod-shaped bacterium.) Scientists theorize that the leprosy bacillus enters the body through a break in the skin or through the mucous membranes of the nose.

The disease can be transmitted from person to person by prolonged close contact, but even today scientists are uncertain of the exact mechanism.

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