DNA tests link Southern leprosy cases to armadillos

Thursday, April 28, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- With some genetic sleuthing, scientists have fingered a likely culprit in the spread of leprosy in the southern United States: the nine-banded armadillo.

DNA tests show a match in the leprosy strain between some patients and these prehistoric-looking critters -- a connection scientists had suspected but until now couldn't pin down.

"Now we have the link," said James Krahenbuhl, who heads a government leprosy program that led the new study.

Only about 150 leprosy cases occur each year in the U.S., mostly among travelers to places like India, Brazil and Angola where it's more common.

The risk of getting leprosy from an armadillo is low because most people who get exposed don't get sick with the ancient scourge, known medically as Hansen's disease and now easily treatable.

Armadillos are one of the few mammals that harbor the bacteria that cause the sometimes disfiguring disease, which first shows up as an unusual lumpy skin lesion.

Researchers at the National Hansen's Disease Programs in Baton Rouge, La., led an international team of scientists who published their findings in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. They think it requires frequent handling of armadillos or eating their meat for leprosy to spread.

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