For years, scientists have speculated that armadillos can pass on leprosy to humans, and that they are behind the few dozen cases of the disease that occur in the U.S. every year. Now, they have evidence. A genetic study published today in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that U.S. armadillos and human patients share what seems to be a unique strain of the bacterium that causes leprosy.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease after the physician who first described it, attacks the skin and the nerves. It's a difficult illness to study: The bacteria grows naturally only in people and armadillos, and in experiments will grow on the footpads of genetically engineered mice.
In most places around the world where leprosy shows up, the disease is thought to pass from person to person. But in Central America and parts of the U.S. South and Southwest, armadillos are common, showing up in backyards, under porches, and by the side of the road. And in some places, more than 20% of armadillos are infected with leprosy. "It's always been a curiosity," says Richard Truman, a microbiologist at the National Hansen's Disease Program which is housed at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Scientists think their low body temperature provides a good environment for Mycobacterium leprae, the leprosy bacteria; in humans, too, M. leprae prefers cooler areas, such as nostrils, fingers, and toes.