A new study indicates that they may even be spreading the disease to humans.
The findings, revealed today in the New England Journal of Medicine, say that wild armadillos and human patients in the southern U.S. often share the same strain of leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease), leading researchers to believe that the disease can be transmitted from animals to humans.
“A preponderance of evidence shows that people get leprosy from these animals,” says lead author Richard Truman, director of microbiology at the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge.
It was previously believed that leprosy could only be transmitted from human to human. About 150 people in the United States are diagnosed with leprosy each year, with symptoms including muscle weakness, skin lesions, and numbness in the extremities.
In biblical times, sufferers were confined to leper colonies. Today, however, antibiotics are used to kill the disease-causing bacteria.
Researchers say you would be unlikely to catch the disease from handling an armadillo. Ingesting it, however, could prove to be quite hazardous, especially in Texas and other southern states where barbecued armadillo and armadillo chili are folk favorites. Avoiding handling and consuming armadillo meat will drastically reduce the already small risk posed by armadillos, says Truman.
Even if you’ve ingested armadillo meat, you still might be in the clear. About 95 percent of people are naturally immune to leprosy.
- DNA links armadillos to leprosy cases in South (cbsnews.com)
- Armadillos may spread leprosy (sciencenews.org)
- Leprosy Jumps from U.S. Armadillos to Humans (livescience.com)