It was a sad day in Texas yesterday after the New England Journal of
Medicine published the discovery that the mysterious cases of leprosy
cropping up in humans are not related to contact with other
humans, but to armadillo carriers. Now, the celebrated armadillo
festivals may be history for armadillo sport lovers and meat eaters in
the southern regions of our country.
Armadillos can carry leprosy causing bacteria and infect humans: Richard Anderson/Flickr, via npr.org
Researchers from the U.S. and Switzerland examined the genetic markers of several leprosy patients that were identified in the past, but recently there have been other patients who appeared with strains that had never been seen before. After testing armadillos from five southern states, it was discovered that some animals had the same M. leprae strains as the group of humans with previously unidentified strains of the disease.
Worldwide, armadillos are the only animals known to to host the leprosy bacteria. Interestingly, the first human settlers in the new world who arrived with leprosy came from Europe. It was they who, somehow, infected the native armadillos with the disease. Now, it is estimated that about 15 percent of U.S. armadillos carry the disease.
Not having contact with armadillo skin and not eating the animal meat are both ways to avoid getting leprosy. In Texas and other southern states armadillo chili and barbecued armadillo are popular local foods. The research strongly indicates that handling and eating these foods might indeed be harmful to your health. Just staying away from the animals altogether would be indicated too.
Leprosy, in humans, is characterized by skin lesions, disfigurement of the limbs, and nerve damage in developed cases. People with leprosy used to be confined to leper colonies, but leprosy can now be treated with a cocktail of antibiotics.
Sources: LA Times, NPR, The New England Journal of Medicine