Chances are you have heard of leprosy at one point or another, perhaps in history class? Have you ever wondered if it was still around?

Well, for those who don’t know it is still a public health problem in modern times. It has been affecting people for well over 4000 years and has played a huge part in teaching us about bacteria-caused diseases. While back in the year 2000, WHO made an announcement that it had been eliminated as a public health issue it isn’t so cut and dry, there is still a problem.

Sure, cases had fallen to 1 or fewer cases per 10,000 people but it was and is still happening. Between the years 2003 and 2012 there were about 140 cases reported in the UK. There are still over 200,000 cases worldwide reported annually.

Now, leprosy also known as Hansen’s disease is an infection caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can take up to 20 years for the signs of infection to show as these bacteria grow extremely slowly. The disease can affect the skin, eyes, lining of the nose, and nerves. If left untreated the nerve damage can result in paralysis of hands and feet. It is not a forgiving illness when left untreated.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important. Once a person begins treatment they are no longer considered contagious. Treatment is fairly simple now but the threat is still very real and signs should not go ignored. Here in the US anywhere from 150-250 people report having leprosy per year.

In the past few years it seems Florida has seen most of those cases. Why is that? Well, a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases from a couple years ago shows that the nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) naturally carry the leprosy bacterium. This meaning it could be and most likely is being spread through these little creatures.

The abstract of this study goes as follows:

Nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) are naturally infected with Mycobacterium leprae and have been implicated in zoonotic transmission of leprosy. Early studies found this disease mainly in Texas and Louisiana, but armadillos in the southeastern United States appeared to be free of infection. We screened 645 armadillos from 8 locations in the southeastern United States not known to harbor enzootic leprosy for M. leprae DNA and antibodies. We found M. leprae–infected armadillos at each location, and 106 (16.4%) animals had serologic/PCR evidence of infection. Using single-nucleotide polymorphism variable number tandem repeat genotyping/genome sequencing, we detected M. leprae genotype 3I-2-v1 among 35 armadillos. Seven armadillos harbored a newly identified genotype (3I-2-v15). In comparison, 52 human patients from the same region were infected with 31 M. leprae types. However, 42.3% (22/52) of patients were infected with 1 of the 2 M. leprae genotype strains associated with armadillos. The geographic range and complexity of zoonotic leprosy is expanding.

Eliminating this bacterium from the wildlife species would be extremely difficult and costly so who knows where any of this will go. Being aware of the risk of direct contact is important. Just try to keep your distance and respect/appreciate their presence from a distance, don’t force contact. For more information on leprosy check out the video below.

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