Before this, we pretty much thought people only caught leprosy from a leper. Those partial to eating armadillos insisted there was no way to catch the debilitating disease from their game meat. About two-thirds of the 150-250 new U.S. cases each year are in people who have lived overseas.
Researchers learned in the 1960s that leprosy strikes armadillos–the only other animal besides humans (and a few odd immuno-compromised monkeys). Armadillos are part of a strange superorder, Xenarthra, which includes sloths and anteaters. They all have have tricky joints and slow metabolism. Discovering the armadillo link was crucial because the leprosy bacteria is so fragile you can’t really grow or study it in the lab without an armadillo.
A few anecdotal reports suggested a link, but the range and population of the armadillos are vast and number of U.S. cases so tiny, that it seemed improbable.
But researchers were curious: the area there the most armadillos are infected– low, coastal wetlands from Texas to the Mississippi-Alabama border–overlaps with most of the inexplicable human cases.
“In those areas, 20% of armadillos are infected,” says Dr. Richard Truman, head microbiologist, National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge, LA. ”But if you go outside that area, 100 miles inland, few or no animals are infected.”
The program, which works with LSU and has an armadillo farm of 140 animals, isolated a strain of new strain of Mycobacterium leprae in 28 of 33 wild armadillos and 25 of the 39 U.S. patients.
They were only able to interview 15 patients and about half recalled an armadillo encounter. Not that people wouldn’t remember handling an armadillo, but it can take five years for the disease to show up.
Hunting armadillos is still a redneck sport. Lots of destitute Americans ate these “Hoover hogs” in the Depression. And they’re a staple in South America. One study patient said he’d hunted and eaten them. The exact method of transmission is unclear. It can probably go from armadillo to person to person. The bacteria won’t survive cooking and 99% is killed by freezing, says Dr. Truman. It can live a couple hours on a lab slide or a couple weeks in wet soil. And Dr. Truman thinks you would need repeated exposure. (The vast majority of humans are genetically unlikely to get it anyway.) So, if you must eat an armadillo, just cook it first. And wildlife-watchers and wildlife rehabilitators should be just fine.
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