Armadillos linked definitely to leprosy in humans

Most people remember leprosy as a biblical disease, with some of the most holy individuals so lauded because they were the only ones who would hang out with lepers, ever.

In most first-world countries, leprosy is exceedingly rare. But it seems in the few cases that do occur in the United States, one third “almost certainly” result from contact with armadillos. Armadillos themselves are pretty uncommon, but in some southern states such as Louisiana and Texas, people still hunt, kill and skin the bizarre creatures.

The 250 or so cases of leprosy identified in the United States each year are treatable with a one-to-two year course of three antibiotics, but few doctors or patients recognize the symptoms as possible leprosy, and thus nerve damage often results.

Don’t go getting mad at the armadillos, either. It turns out that humans actually gave the creatures the disease before they started passing it back to us:

But one of the interesting aspects of leprosy is that transmission seems to have gone in both directions. Leprosy was not present in the New World before Christopher Columbus, and armadillos are indigenous only to the New World.

“So armadillos had to have acquired it from humans sometime in the last 400 to 500 years,” said Dr. Richard W. Truman, a researcher at the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge, La., and an author of the armadillo study, which was published Wednesday in TheNew England Journal of Medicine.

The bacterium that eventually causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, is only known to “flourish” in humans and armadillos, and Dr. Truman says “casual contact with armadillos” is unlikely to result in infection. He adds that people should be “discouraged from consuming armadillo flesh or handling it” to avoid armadillo-related leprosy.