JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Leprosy cases in Florida are higher than normal, and experts are blaming armadillos.
Nine cases have been reported across Florida so far this year, already nearly matching the state’s average of 10 cases per year, according to the Department of Health.
Dr. Sunil Joshi, president of the Duval County Medical Society, says each case this year has involved people who were in direct contact with armadillos.
According to the Center for Disease Control, armadillos are the only animal to carry leprosy, a bacterial disease that affects the skin and nerves. The disease can be spread through saliva.
The most recent diagnosis for leprosy came in Flagler County three weeks ago.
Joshi says these occurrences are still very rare, but urged people to stay away from the animal.
Armadillos are often used in the study of leprosy, since they, along with mangabey monkeys, rabbits and mice (on their footpads), are among the few known species that can contract the disease systemically. They are particularly susceptible due to their unusually low body temperature, which is hospitable to the leprosy bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae. (The leprosy bacterium is difficult to culture and armadillos have a body temperature of 34 °C (93 °F), similar to human skin.) Humans can acquire a leprosy infection from armadillos by handling them or consuming armadillo meat. Armadillos are a presumed vector and natural reservoir for the disease in Texas and Louisiana. Prior to thearrival of Europeans in the late 15th century, leprosy was unknown in the New World. Given that armadillos are native to the New World, at some point they must have acquired the disease from humans.