Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Armadillos & Leprosy in the Southern U.S.

A baby 9-band armadillo, native to the southern U.S. A baby 9-band armadillo, native to the southern U.S.Zoonoses are diseases caused by exposure to animals. Leprosy (Hansen’s disease) caused by Mycobacterium leprae has had enormous significance worldwide historically.  It is not just a disease of ancient times; there were nearly 250,000 cases reported globally as recently as in 2008.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Probable Zoonotic Leprosy in the Southern United States” by Richard Truman, PhD. and colleagues (N Engl J Med 2011;364:1626-1633) concluded that wild armadillos and many patients with leprosy in the southern U.S. are infected with the same strain of M. leprae. This means that armadillos are a natural reservoir for these germs; that contact with armadillos can cause leprosy; and that enough of them are infected that this may be an established zoonosis in this region. The locations included are Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Mexico.

Additional conclusions are that frequent direct contact with armadillos should be avoided, as should cooking and consumption of armadillo meat. There are armadillos living in the eastern U.S. that are not infected. However, given the ease with which the mycobacteria seem to spread in these animals, it is possible that the infection will spread. Armadillos introduced into Florida, as well as in other states, will need to be monitored closely. At this point, armadillos are the only known non-human reservoir for M. leprae.

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Tags: Bites & Stings , General Interest , Staying Safe

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Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.