Of the 150 or so new cases of leprosy (a bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae) diagnosed in the United States each year, about a third are acquired from inside the country. Researchers from the Global Health Institute at EPFL and from Louisiana State University have now confirmed the source of those infections. Leprosy is carried and transmitted by armadillos.
Those familiar with both the disease and with armadillos probably aren’t surprised. After all, armadillos have been known to carry leprosy for decades. Armadillos, with their body temperature of 89° F, are well suited to harbor M. leprae, which require a temperature of between 86° F and 89° F (30° C to 32° C). Most people are only this cool at their extremities (where leprosy tends to attack).
In this study, genetic analysis was used to compare the exact strain of leprosy in human patients and in armadillos. The same unique strain of M. leprae was found in 28 out of 33 wild armadillos and in 25 out of 39 human patients living in proximity with the armadillos, indicating a clear connection.
Leprosy is actually not that easy to contract. Over 90% of people who are exposed to leprosy will fight it off without treatment, and those that do become ill can be cured with modern antibiotics. Nevertheless, the authors conclude:
Frequent direct contact with armadillos and cooking and consumption of armadillo meat should be discouraged.