Leprosy Cases Linked to Armadillos on the Rise in Florida

In Florida, a recent increase in the number of leprosy cases linked to armadillos acts as a stark reminder that this ancient disease still exists, even in the U.S.

All of the nine people diagnosed with leprosy in Florida this year have been in contact with armadillos. In 2011, a study partially funded by American Leprosy Missions first suggested humans could catch leprosy from nine-banded armadillos.

An international team of scientists led by the National Hansen’s Disease Programs published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that armadillos and many leprosy patients in the southern U.S. are infected with the same strain of Mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria that cause leprosy.

Each year 150-200 cases of leprosy are diagnosed in the U.S. Approximately one third of these cases have no traditional exposure to the bacteria that cause leprosy, such as significant foreign residence. The leprosy bacteria from armadillos and U.S. patients without foreign exposure are essentially identical genetically, and significantly different from the bacteria found internationally.

The recent reports of leprosy in Florida by people who have been in contact with armadillos support the scientific study’s suggestion that the armadillo is a source for leprosy in humans in the southern U.S. Armadillos and humans are the only mammals known to carry the leprosy bacteria.

Questions and Answers About Leprosy and Armadillos

Q:  What causes leprosy?
A: A germ, or bacteria, called Mycobacterium leprae. It causes an infection that affects the skin, destroys nerves and can also cause problems in the eyes and nose. 

Q:  What is the risk of catching leprosy from an armadillo?
A:  95% of the world population has natural immunity to leprosy. The risk also depends on the likelihood of close contact with infected armadillos.

Q:  How do humans catch leprosy from armadillos?
A:  Human epidemiology suggests through the nose or broken skin, but scientists aren’t certain.

Q:  How did the armadillo become infected?
A:  It is believed that the armadillo acquired the disease from humans.

Q:  Is leprosy in armadillos spreading?
A:  Armadillos are found from the southeast corner of Colorado and eastward to North Carolina. Currently leprosy infection in armadillos has only been found in five states in the Gulf region.

Q:  How can I protect myself from catching leprosy from armadillos?
A:  Avoid direct contact with armadillos. If you come in contact with armadillos, simple washing of exposed skin is sufficient.

Q:  What are the early symptoms of leprosy?
A:  Pale lesions on the skin that are chronic, don’t respond to other common treatments and have reduced feeling. If you think you may have been infected, see your physician because leprosy can be cured. But, if left untreated, leprosy can lead to permanent nerve damage, deformity, crippling and blindness.

Q: How is leprosy treated?
A: Leprosy can be cured with multi-drug therapy (MDT), a combination of three antibiotics: rifampin, clofazimine and dapsone. Treatment can take from six months to a year, sometimes longer. People are no longer contagious after about one week of MDT.

Answers to other frequently asked questions about leprosy.

Leprosy in the World

Worldwide, every two minutes someone is diagnosed with leprosy. In 2013, 103 countries reported new cases of leprosy. Approximately 250,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, and many more go undetected.

The leprosy bacteria attack nerve endings and destroy the body’s ability to feel pain. If left untreated, leprosy can cause deformity, crippling and blindness. More than 13 million people worldwide have disabilities as a result of leprosy.

About American Leprosy Missions

American Leprosy Missions, based in Greenville, South Carolina, is the oldest and largest Christian organization in the United States dedicated to curing and caring for people affected by leprosy and related diseases. It currently supports projects and partners in countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas. Since its founding in 1906, American Leprosy Missions has provided holistic care to more than four million people around the world including medical treatment and training, community development and vaccine research.