As if there weren’t enough infectious diseases to worry about, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing a warning about a new strain of leprosy — and pinning the blame on, of all creatures, armadillos.
It’s long been known that armadillos harbor one particular strain of leprosy that has occasionally been transmitted to humans. But now, researchers say they’ve discovered armadillos in the southeastern US with a new genotype of leprosy bacteria. It’s also turning up in human patients, where it can cause skin and nerve damage.
All told, the CDC report found 52 people with leprosy in the southeastern US — and of those, 22 had the strain tied to armadillos. The CDC calls it an emerging infectious disease.
Why do so many armadillos have leprosy?
Armadillos likely have humans to thank for leprosy, with the best guess being that it was transmitted to the well-armored mammals about 400 years ago. One theory holds that armadillos might be prone to carrying leprosy because of their low body temperature, which makes a good host for the fragile bacteria. About 20 percent of armadillos carry the pathogen.
Do we really have to worry about it?
The CDC report says that actual interspecies transfer between people and armadillos is rare. People who work for prolonged periods of time in places frequented by armadillos — say, gardens — are the most at risk of picking up the infection. But even then, about 95 percent of people are immune to the bacteria.
All that said, there is some cause for concern now that armadillos previously thought to be leprosy-free have been found to harbor the bacteria. The CDC is worried that the disease could crop up in other animals across the country, which could in turn affect how often humans come into contact with the bacteria.