Armadillos and Leprosy

Did you know that you can get leprosy from Armadillo? For many years, there have been various speculations regarding the relationship between human beings, armadillos and leprosy. Scientists have always speculated that these animals could pass leprosy to human beings and that they could be behind some of the reported leprosy cases that occur in the United States each year. However, they now have evidence. According to research reports from genetic studies, there is a new evidence which shows that sick human beings and the US armadillos share what appears to be a unique bacterium strain of leprosy. It has been established that armadillos found south of US are capable of carrying leprosy-causing bacteria with new studies indicating that the animals can now be found over a much bigger geographical range.

Nine Banded Armadillo

Although the Nine – Banded Armadillo which was known to transmit Mycobacterium leprae bacteria to human beings was thought to be mainly confined to Texas and Louisiana, there is a new evidence that proves some of the infected armadillos live in other parts of the southeastern US.

Leprosy, also known as the Hansen’s disease usually attacks the nerves and the skin. It’s one of the most difficult diseases to study because the bacteria that causes it normally grows naturally only in armadillos and humans while in experiments it can be grown on foot-pads of some genetically-engineered mice. In many places all over the world where there have been incidences of leprosy, the disease is said to be contracted from person to person. However, in the south, southwest and central America, armadillos are common and they often show up by the roadside, backyard or under porches and in most cases 20 percent of them are usually infected with leprosy.

Scientists say that the low body temperatures found in the toes, fingers, and nostrils of these animals and humans offer a good breeding environment for the leprosy bacteria. However, Richard Truman who is a microbiologist from the National Hansen’s Disease-Program says that leprosy shouldn’t be treated as a public-health threat because it is and will still remain as a very rare form of infection. Truman continued to say that the potential of leprosy spreading from armadillos to human beings is still very low.

Research studies carried on about 645- armadillos which were taken from different eight locations in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida between the years 2003 – 2012 found infected armadillos in each of the four states. Around sixteen percent of all the screened armadillos showed evidence of infection although some of these areas were all thought to be free from leprosy infected armadillos. Previous research studies conducted by Truman show that between 150 -250 cases of leprosy are normally diagnosed in the US annually and more than 40 of them are associated with exposure to armadillos that are infected.

Immunity to Leprosy

Only about five percent of people in the whole population is susceptible to the leprosy bacteria. Studies indicate that 95 percent of the population is completely immune to the M. leprae bacteria and even if they are exposed to it, they will not get sick. A leprosy infection can cause symptoms like damaged nerves, skin lesions and if it is not detected early, it can cause nerve deformity.

How Leprosy Can Spread

One of the most common modes of leprosy transmission is via direct long-term contact with infected individuals who have not received treatment. The bacteria can also spread through the air, from one individual to the next. Also, people who usually eat armadillos and those who hunt them down have a much higher risk of contracting the infection. As a way of reducing exposure to the leprosy-causing bacteria, it is important for people to void direct contact with tissues or blood of armadillos.

Treatment

Since the early 1940s, the Hansen’s disease has always been cured with antibiotics although there are better medications that are available currently. Before the 1940s, leprosy was incurable and doctors were incapable of preventing its bacteria from advancing. Although most people have a certain “image” of leprosy from the way it is usually depicted in books and movies, Dr. David Scollard who is the director of the National-Hansen’s Disease-Program Laboratory-Research Branch said that the disease is not a curse the way people are used to imagining it.