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Experts have studied the skeletal remains of five bodies excavated in Ireland and tested the remains for strains of leprosy. Source: Suthiporn / Adobe Stock.

Did Scandinavian Vikings Carry Leprosy To Ireland?


The skeletal remains of five bodies excavated in Ireland suggest Vikings brought leprosy to the Emerald Isle.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease , is a chronic infectious disease that is caused when Mycobacterium leprae attacks the peripheral nerves, affecting the mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract, the skin and eyes. Initially, the infected person shows no symptoms but between five and 20 years later, they quite literally begin falling to pieces.

How the infectious disease made its way to Ireland has always been a thing of mystery until a new study by researchers at Queen's University Belfast and academics in England, found that the disease might have been delivered by 9th century Scandinavian Vikings .

Leprosy Testing From Five Ancient Hosts

According to Live Science , the earliest case of the ancient disease was found on a 4,000-year-old skeleton in India. L eprosy is still one of the least understood infectious diseases in the world. In part, this is because the bacteria that causes it (Mycobacterium leprae) is difficult to culture in labs for research, and curiously, apart from humans, only the nine banded armadillo can host the disease.

Elderly male with leprosy from 1889. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Elderly male with leprosy from 1889. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Irish Examiner  reports that the new research was funded by The British Academy and conducted by Queens University Belfast, University of Surrey, and University of Southampton. The researchers studied microbial data from five excavated bodies; three from Dublin, one from Kildare, and one from Antrim, and a number of strains of the ancient leprosy bacterium (M leprae) were identified.

The three individuals studied from Dublin are not native to the city and the paper suggests one may have been from what it is today Britain or from northern Ireland, while tests demonstrated that the other two were native to Scandinavia. Professor Mike Taylor, a bioarchaeological scientist at the University of Surrey, said: “As past leprosy strains evolved, the genetic fingerprint of an archaeological case of leprosy can tell us about the possible movements of that individual”.

The Leprosy Strain was of Scandinavian and Middle Eastern Origins

This discovery, according to Professor Eileen Murphy, from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen's University, shines new light on the legacy of the Vikings in Ireland . Furthermore, she says that because Ireland is located in the far west of Europe, relatively little is known of leprosy in medieval Ireland and the study has the potential to provide interesting insights about the historical origin of the disease.

The reason scientists find Ireland of particular interest when creating models of the spread of leprosy is because the island wasn’t absorbed into the Roman world and neither did it undergo the same level of Anglo-Saxon occupation as its neighbors, England and France. Professor Mike Taylor said this new study reveals that despite being situated on the western extremity of Europe, “Ireland and, certainly, Dublin was not isolated ”.

Dr. Taylor wrote in the paper that the two strains of leprosy discovered are “highly similar” to those found in medieval Scandinavians , which increases the likelihood that this was the origin, he said. And while one strain had its origins in Scandinavia, the other is thought to most likely have originated in the Middle East .

Fighting Leprosy Today

You would think that in a civilization that landed on Mars, discovered the quantum realm, and cloned a sheep , ancient diseases like leprosy and the causal Mycobacterium leprae would have been eliminated a long time ago, but this is sadly not the case.

Hansen's disease, closeup of the hands of old man suffering from leprosy. (frank29052515 / Adobe Stock)

Hansen's disease, closeup of the hands of old man suffering from leprosy. ( frank29052515 / Adobe Stock)

In 1981, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the shocking statistic that there have been “More than 16 million leprosy patients ” over the past 20 years. They began fighting the disease with “MDT” regimens consisting of the medicines: dapsone, rifampicin, and clofazimine, which kill the pathogen and cures the patient . And, according to the WHO website, based on official figures from 159 countries from the six WHO Regions, "208,619 new cases of leprosy” were registered globally in 2018.

Top image: Experts have studied the skeletal remains of five bodies excavated in Ireland and tested the remains for strains of leprosy. Source: Suthiporn / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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