A new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine points to Armadillo as the likely culprit behind the sudden increase of the number of leprosy cases in South America.
Leprosy, caused by Mycobacterium leprae, is characterized by disfiguring skin lesions and peripheral nerve damage. The disease has been around since Biblical times, and was likely brought to North America by European settlers. People with leprosy were once shunned, and often forced to live in “leper colonies.”
According to the study conducted, Richard Truman, a microbiologist at the National Hansen’s Disease Program and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and his colleagues compared bacterial samples from 50 patients in Louisiana and from 33 infected wild armadillos from five southern states. A highly specific strain of the bacterium showed up in 28 of the 33 animals and in 22 of 29 patients who had never lived outside the United States and Mexico. Interviews with 15 of the leprosy patients further revealed that eight had had direct contact with armadillos.
Truman says there was no leprosy in the New World until European settlers arrived. Somehow armadillos contracted the disease, and now about 15 percent of armadillos carry it. They are ideal hosts, because M. leprae likes their low, 89-degree body temperature. It can’t thrive at a human’s core temperature, which is why it only attacks our cooler extremities.
Truman continues that the more likely path to infection of leprosy is by noshing on armadillo. “People become infected because of direct contact with raw armadillo flesh that has been butchered in some way or another,” he says.
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