Thursday, April 28, 2011

Watch out for Armadillos!


Research released today in the New England Journal of Medicine points to what many leprosy researchers have suspected for years: that armadillos can likely transmit leprosy to humans.

Leprosy, also called Hansen ’s disease, is caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The bug likes cooler temperatures than are found at the cores of human bodies, which is why it infects our extremities and skin. Armadillos have a low core body temperature, about 89 degrees Fahrenheit, which Mycobacterium leprae finds quite comfortable.

How did armadillos, of all creatures, get leprosy? Humans gave it to them. Richard Truman, the study’s first author, tells NPR health blog “Shots” that leprosy was brought to the New World by European settlers. It’s not known exactly how or when we gave it to the armadillos, but now about 15% of them carry the disease.

The study looked at the genetics of the bacterial strains found in leprosy patients in the southern U.S., and compared them with the genetics of the bacteria from wild armadillos living in the same area. A majority of both the patients and the armadillos carried the same strain of bacteria, and this strain hasn’t been reported anywhere else in the world. The conclusion is that the patients got leprosy from the armadillos.

Truman tells NPR that the risk of contracting leprosy from brief contact with an armadillo is low, so how did they give it to us? In some southern states, barbecued armadillo and armadillo chili are folk favorites. That’s right; the humans got leprosy from eating armadillo. Fortunately, if treated early with antibiotics, the bacteria are eradicated from the body and people become healthy again. Nonetheless, I don’t think you’ll catch me ordering up an armadillo burger anytime soon.

New England Journal of Medicine article:

NPR "Shots" blog post:

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