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Armadillos Can Transfer Leprosy To Humans

Armadillos Can Transfer Leprosy To Humans

Leprosy may not be the plague it once was, but an estimated 150 to 250 people contract it in the United States each year. Two-thirds of U.S. patients acquire the disease after traveling to places such as India, Brazil, Africa and the Philippines, where leprosy still affects about 250,000 people. As for the other one-third, new research suggests they may become infected by armadillos.

Leprosy, as known as Hansen’s disease, joins infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS on the list of illnesses that can jump species. Interestingly, many experts believe humans first introduced it to the armadillo population, rather than the other way around. There are no recorded instances of leprosy in the Americas before Christopher Columbus arrived, and armadillos are not native to any other part of the world. Now, they’re giving it back to us.

Armadillo habitat ranges from Colorado to North Carolina. In some regions, as many as 20% of the armadillo population is infected. Yet the bacteria that causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, is very fragile. It doesn’t live very long in laboratory conditions or elsewhere outside its host. Armadillos and humans seem to be the only places where Mycobacterium leprae thrives.

Via New York Times:

The fragility of the leprosy bacterium suggests that infections result from something more than casual contact with an armadillo, [said Dr. Richard W. Truman, an author of the armadillo study, which was published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.]

“The important thing is that people should be discouraged from consuming armadillo flesh or handling it,” Dr. Truman said.

Dr. Truman and the other researchers used genetic sequencing to prove that the additional one-third of U.S. leprosy infections are transmitted by armadillos. These cases were primarily in Louisiana and Texas, where armadillos are hunted and eaten.

Leprosy is treatable with antibiotics, but doctors in the U.S. are often slow to diagnose the disease in patients who have not traveled abroad. Patients who are not diagnosed in the early stages can suffer severe nerve damage. Researchers hope the new data will encourage doctors to consider a patient’s armadillo history when making a diagnosis.

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Photo credit: austinevan

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51 comments

+ add your own
9:13AM PDT on May 6, 2011

THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT'S OK TO RUN OVER EVERY ONE YOU SEE.

7:11AM PDT on May 4, 2011

The main point of the article is don't eat armadillo meat. Nothing in the article said go kill them.

5:26PM PDT on May 3, 2011

thank you for this article--I was clueless!

4:56PM PDT on May 3, 2011

Yo tambien pienso que es una excusa para matarlos

5:41PM PDT on May 2, 2011

Ive actually known this because I did a project on Leprosy for Biology and as far as I researched the 2 organisms that carry Leprosy are humans and armadillos. I human can get it from close contact with an infected armadillo or human. Just wanted to clear that up (:

2:29PM PDT on May 2, 2011

A very good reason to leave armadillos well alone to do as they please. I had a small giggle at the phrase 'patient's armadillo history'

12:09AM PDT on May 2, 2011

An interesting article, indeed. I feel badly for the Armadillos as it seems humans have inflicted more upon nature than nature can not handle.

9:55AM PDT on May 1, 2011

I don't buy it. How often does a person come into contact with an armadillo for pete's sake? I've been in Texas quite a few times and I've never seen an armadillo except maybe once dead at the side of the road. I think this is just another excuse to have to kill an animal for the sake of someone's greed. One more reason to justify killing an animal.

3:22AM PDT on May 1, 2011

What a clever comment, Rosemary. When I first read the title I thought: "oh, so people have to avoid them now", but you right Rosemary, some locos out there will grab their guns instead and go out to kill those poor animals -.-

I guess common sense is a gift in times like these :/

2:49AM PDT on May 1, 2011

The article title should read, humans and armadillos can both contract leprosy

or, perhaps better and more honestly still,

Influx of humans inflicts disease on native wildlife populations.

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