Study Shows Link Between Armadillos and Leprosy in the Southern U.S.

New Report in New England Journal of Medicine Suggests Humans Catch Leprosy from Armadillos

A new study partially funded by Greenville-based American Leprosy Missions suggests humans can catch leprosy from nine-banded armadillos.

An international team of scientists led by the National Hansen’s Disease Programs, Baton Rouge, LA has 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 M. leprae from armadillos and U.S. patients without foreign exposure are essentially identical genetically and significantly different from M. leprae found internationally. These data suggest that the armadillo is a source for leprosy in humans in the southern U.S.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the risk of acquiring leprosy from an armadillo?

A: Only about 5% of people are susceptible to the infection; 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.

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 is curable with multi-drug therapy.

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 western 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.

For more information about this study, contact Richard Truman, Ph.D., HHS/HRSA/BPHC, National Hansen’s Disease Program, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, [email protected], 225-578-9848,

American Leprosy Missions’ board member, Ymelda Beauchamp, and the NEJM study were the focus of an Associated Press article DNA Tests Links Southern Leprosy Cases to Armadillo by Alicia Chang on April 27, 2011.

Leprosy in the World

Worldwide, every two minutes someone is diagnosed with leprosy. In 2009, there were approximately 250,000 new cases of leprosy, primarily in Asia, Africa and South America.

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 three 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 restoring the lives of people affected by leprosy and Buruli ulcer. ALM currently operates in 15 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. During its more than 100-year history, ALM has provided holistic care to 4 million people around the world including medical treatment and training, Christian outreach, prevention of disability, community development, education assistance, micro-credit loans and vaccine research. For more information about ALM’s ministry, please visit

For Additional Information

Sarah Hesshaus
Communications Manager
[email protected]