According to a new study, the armadillos carrying the leprosy bacteria – called Mycobacterium leprae – that live in the southern United States have spread over the past few years and can now be found in a lot more regions.
In the paper – published October 29 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases – the researchers wrote that the nine-banded armadillos that were once found only in Louisiana and Texas actually live in other areas in south-eastern United States. They can transmit the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria to humans.
Leprosy, which is also called Hansen’s disease (HD), is a chronic infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae.
Dr. David Scollard, director of the National Hansen’s Disease Program Laboratory Research Branch said that ever since the 1940s, people have used antibiotics to cure Hansen’s disease. Nowadays there is even more effective medication.
The infection is very rare and does not represent a public health threat, stated Richard W. Truman, lead author of the study and chief of the laboratory research branch for the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In the study, the researchers conducted tests on 645 armadillos in four states – Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia – from 2003 to 2012 and found that there were armadillos infected with Mycobacterium leprae in each of the locations.
Evidence of the infection was found in approximately 16 percent of the armadillos, the researchers said. These areas were previously thought to be infection free.
Truman says that the spared of Hansen’s disease from armadillos to humans is very low. Only five percent of the population is susceptible to Mycobacterium leprae infection. Hansen’s disease typically affects the nerves and skin and has symptoms like skin lesions, deformity, and nerve damage.
Previous findings showed that 95 of people are immune to the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria, and even if they are exposed to it they do not get infected.
In the United States, about 150 to 250 cases of Hansen’s disease are diagnosed annually, according to Truman. Another study found that 40 of the new Hansen’s disease cases occur because of exposure to armadillos carrying the leprosy bacteria.
These who consume armadillo’s meat are more exposed to the bacteria and have an increased risk of getting the infection, Truman added.
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