Leprosy and the Armadillo
They look innocent enough, though odd, with their long, pointy snouts, beady eyes, short, scaly legs, all poking out from beneath a leathery carapace. They are a common sight in the American south, especially if you are looking for roadkill along the highways and dirt lanes that crisscross the country from Amarillo, Texas to Apalachicola, Florida. About the size of a large house cat when fully grown, the humble armadillo has become the prime suspect in a medical mystery that goes back to Biblical times.
It was reported on April 28, 2011 that genetic researchers at the Health Resources and Services Administration's (HRSA)National Hansen's Disease Program (NHDP) in Baton Rouge, LA, had uncovered a potential risk for the transmission of Hansen's Disease, also known as leprosy, from armadillos to humans.
Leprosy is a bacterial infection that is known for its disfiguring and crippling effects. Until the discovery of antibiotics, numbed and rotting limbs and faces, and deep, oozing lesions were common symptoms of this condition. Victims were banished to "colonies" where they were quarantined, having no human contact other than with fellow Lepers. Until the mid-1900's, Leprosy had resulted in the isolation and deaths of millions of people. Formally known as Hansen's disease, this condition continues to afflict as many as two million people worldwide, with as many as 250 thousand new cases each year. This disease, if misdiagnosed or left untreated, still causes deformity and disability. The United States has around 200 new cases of leprosy each year, with most of them occurring in the south.
According to the researchers at the National Hansen's Disease Program, armadillos have long been suspected as a source of leprosy infections in humans which occur in the Gulf Coast region. Recent breakthroughs in genetic testing have now confirmed those suspicions. In the new study, scientists compared gene sequences from samples of leprosy bacteria found in humans with that found in armadillos. According to the report, 85 percent of the armadillo gene samples contained the same genotype as those from humans. The researchers emphasized that despite this finding, the risk of contracting leprosy from armadillos remains "extremely low."Continued on the next page