April 28, 2011 in Nation/World

Scientists link leprosy cases to armadillos

Eryn Brown Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

With some genetic sleuthing, scientists have fingered a likely culprit in the spread of leprosy in the southern United States: the nine-banded armadillo.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – They’re cute. They’re often roadkill. Some gourmands say they’re tasty, whether baked or barbecued.

Now Louisiana researchers have learned something else about nine-banded armadillos.

“A preponderance of evidence shows that people get leprosy from these animals,” said Richard W. Truman, director of microbiology at the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge and lead author of a paper detailing the discovery in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Until now, scientists believed that leprosy was passed only from human to human. Every year, about 100 to 150 people in the United States are diagnosed with the malady, which is also known as Hansen’s disease. Though many have traveled to countries where the disease is relatively common, as many as one-third don’t know where they picked it up.

Most of those cases are in Texas and Louisiana, where leprosy-infected armadillos live too.

Now, Truman said, “we’re able to provide a link.”

Leprosy is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, a cousin of the microbe that causes tuberculosis. People with leprosy develop skin lesions; severe cases can cause nerve damage or disfigurement in the limbs. It is treatable with a combination of three antibiotics,

For years scientists had known that other than humans, armadillos are the only known natural hosts for M. leprae in the world.

Using sophisticated genetic analysis, Truman and his team collected samples from 50 patients with leprosy and 33 wild armadillos in the U.S.

Using two types of analyses, the scientists reported that 28 of the animals and 25 of the patients who had lived near armadillos shared a genotype called 3I-2-v1.

“It doesn’t mean people need to run away from armadillos the way they do a rattlesnake, but people need to be careful,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. “You shoot an armadillo and try to skin it – that’s the worst thing you could do.”

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