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Posted by on Apr 28, 2011 in Infectious diseases, Neurology

Infected Armadillos and Humans Often Share Same Strain of Leprosy

Infected Armadillos and Humans Often Share Same Strain of Leprosy


We all pretty much knew that armadillos are a source of leprosy. (Right, we all pretty much knew that?) In fact, a 2005 review by Louisiana State’s Richard W. Truman, PhD, reminds us that wild armadillos were recognized as early as 1975 to harbor Mycobacterium leprae, the causative agent,* and that the probable sources of the pathogen for armadillos were European and African immigrants to the New World some 400-500 years ago. But leprosy also appears to be a disease that has kept on giving, or more accurately circulating…between the 2 species.

This conclusion is supported by a recent genome-sequencing study, led by Truman and the results of which are published in this week’s issue of the NEJM. The data show that infected humans and armadillos in disease-endemic areas of the Americas (like Louisiana and Venezuela), in fact, often harbor the same M. leprae strainsuggesting that leprosy is a bona-fide zoonosis.

But how North Americans have acquired and are acquiring the leprosy pathogen from armadillos has not been well-defined. Truman tells the NYT that the contact is probably not casual, given the persnickety nature of the bug.** He advises that “people should be discouraged from consuming armadillo flesh or handling it,” a relatively common practice in areas of, for example, Brazila country that contributes one half of all leprosy cases in the Americas.

* The reason being that armadillos have a naturally low core body temperature, which fosters the growth of M. laprae.

** Because M. leprae cannot be cultivated in a Petri-dish-type culture, armadillos have historically been used to artificially propagate the pathogen.

iStockPhoto pic of armadillo. God, they’re ugly.

bmartin (1130 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.