Armadillos May Be Cause for Rising Leprosy Rates in Florida

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The Florida Department of Health is recommending people take certain precautions to avoid contracting leprosy from armadillos, even though the overall risk to humans is relatively low.

There have been nine leprosy cases reported in the last seven months, according the FDHP.

However, Nadia Kovacevich, epidemiologist at the Florida Health Department of Alachua County, said the direct link from armadillos to humans has not yet been confirmed in their research.

Florida typically sees a total of 10 (leprosy) cases a year, according to Kovacevich. If no other cases are reported this year, we will still be at our average.

Kovacevich explained how leprosy, a chronic bacterial disease of the nerve endings that can involve the respiratory tract, is transmitted by coughing or sneezing or by having direct contact with an infected person’s skin.

Scientists at the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) National Hansen’s Disease Program (NHDP) in Baton Rouge, La conducted a recent study linking armadillos to leprosy infection in the Southern United States. 

However, Dr. James Krahenbuhl, director of the NHDP, stated in the report the risk of human infection from armadillos remains “extremely low.”

Krahenbuhl also noted in the report that armadillos have been the suspected source for human cases of leprosy throughout the Gulf Coast region of the U.S. for several decades.

Kovacevich said the risk of contracting leprosy from an armadillo is not only low, but 95 percent of the population is also immune from contracting the disease.

Additionally, Kovacevich noted there isn’t evidence of infection from armadillos in all of the reported leprosy cases.

“The only armadillo that gets leprosy and is a natural host is the nine-banded armadillo,” Truman said. They can range in location from northern Argentina to Tennessee, he added.

“By no means are all armadillos infected. It’s a small fraction and that’s going to vary from place to place,” said Dr. David Scollard, director of the NHDP.

Armadillos are nocturnal animals but are currently in breeding season. This makes it more common to come into contact with one during the day, especially if you go hiking or camping, said Jason Sacco, vice president of Critter Control Fort Lauderdale.

Dr. Richard Truman, acting chief of laboratory research branch for National Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Program, said, “The organism itself is not very robust, it only survives in short periods in the natural environment.”

Sacco said armadillos live in multiple locations in the U.S., but mostly in the southeast. He advises people to call a professional if they find one in their yard.

When trapping armadillos, Critter Control uses a funneled trapping method to lure them in without using bait, Sacco said. The employees use nitrile or latex gloves, and sometime animal bite resistant gloves with heavy cotton webbing.

“Always call a professional and make the wise decision to leave it be,” Sacco said.

“The biggest states for acquiring this infection is probably (in) the South in Louisiana and Texas,” Scollard said. “Florida is somewhere behind that.”

Kovacevich said as long as someone is not coming up to armadillos and handling them with direct skin to skin contact, there is no need to worry.

If a person is infected, symptoms could take anywhere from nine months to 20 years to show, Kovacevich said.

“There’s no screening test for people to know if they have been exposed. The only way to know is if they have certain presentation on the skin that a specialist can test them for,” Kovacevich said.

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention  advises the symptoms of leprosy include skin lesions, growths on the skin, nosebleeds, and ulcers on the soles of the feet.

If diagnosed, Truman said it is important for people to let their medical care provider know of their potential exposures in their lifetime. He said leprosy is very curable and can be treated with a multi-drug treatment for a period of one or two years depending on the patient.

About Allison Stendardo

Allison is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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