Leprosy was regarded with horror and usually assumed to be divine punishment, called ‘the living death’. Sufferers were treated as though they were already dead and given ‘funeral’ services, after which their relatives were allowed to inherit their estates.
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Leprosy was considered to be highly contagious so the main treatment was containment, which involved isolating the sufferer from healthy people. Lepers would wear bandages to cover their sores and carried a bell to warn people that they were coming. They weren’t even allowed inside churches, which is why many medieval churches had built-in ‘leper squints’ – holes through which ‘unclean’ people could watch the services. Even as late as the 1940s, sufferers were banished to colonies or even leper islands.
Medicinal oil from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree had little effect, and no real work was done until Norwegian physician GH Armauer Hansen isolated the leprosy bacillus in 1873. When treatments were attempted in the 20th century, they were either painful to administer or the germ quickly developed resistance. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a successful ‘multi-drug’ was created, and later approved by the World Health Organisation in 1981.