Armadillo and leprosy?


I believe that most Southerners who enjoy our fields and forests are familiar with this strange-looking little creature and have heard of its possible connection with leprosy, but I doubt that many of us have explored their relationship.

I know I haven't. Maybe we should explore a little background on each before we attempt to put them together.

Armadillo: Armadillos originated in South America and his name means “little armored one” in Spanish.

Of the 21 species, we have, primarily in the South and Southwest, the nine-banded armadillo – maybe we should have built “The Wall” a century or so ago?

They are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and plants. They aren't social creatures and spend up to 16 hours each day sleeping in the burrows they have dug.

When we catch a glimpse of one, it is usually out foraging for food.

Although I have never witnessed one do this, I read that the North American nine-banded armadillo tends to jump straight up in the air when surprised, so consequently often colliding with the undercarriage or fenders of passing vehicles.

One could almost confirm this by traveling country roads and the Natchez Trace. This trait is assuredly responsible for the fact that they are also known as “Hillbilly Speed Bumps”.

Leprosy (Hansen's Disease): Leprosy is caused by a bacterium, one which grows very slowly and may take up to 20 years for signs of the infection to become apparent.

Each year, about 150 to 250 people in the United States and 250,000 around the world get the illness. It is felt that two-thirds of leprosy patients in this country have either lived or worked in places such as India, Brazil, Africa, or the Philippines before coming down with the illness.

Most of us first heard of leprosy in our Bibles. My personal Bible (The New Oxford Annotated Bible) has a footnote each time the disease is mentioned, stating “The terms leper or leprosy can refer to several diseases”.

The disease affects the nerves, skin, eyes, and the lining of the nose. The skin supplied by affected nerves lose the ability to sense touch and pain.

The skin also changes color and becomes dry and flaky. Eventually the body may reabsorb affected fingers and toes.

Corneal ulcers and blindness may occur if facial nerves are affected. In the past, leprosy was feared as a highly contagious, devastating disease, but now we know that it's hard to spread and easily treated once recognized.

Armadillos and humans: Armadillos are often used in the study of leprosy since they are particularly susceptible due to their unusually low body temperature. Humans can acquire a leprosy infection from armadillos by handling them or consuming armadillo meat.

One might consider this “armadillo revenge”, given that armadillos are native to the new world, and at some point they must have acquired the disease from old-world humans. The potential for the spread of leprosy between armadillos and humans is extremely low, however as many as 40 new cases in the U.S. annually are felt to be associated with exposure to infected armadillos.

Only a small number of people, about five percent of the population, are susceptible to infection with Mycobacterium leprae (the bacterium etiologic in the disease).

So in summary, yes indeed, armadillos can transmit leprosy to humans, but the odds are greatly against it.

One can improve these odds even more by simply avoiding unnecessary contact with the critters. And, of course, do not go hunting, skinning or eating them (a rule I would assume armadillos would appreciate too).

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Bragging rights for another year are on the line tomorrow night, as St. Joseph Catholic School takes on St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, in a storied matchup formerly dubbed “The Holy War.”