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The case of the armadillo: Is it spreading leprosy in Florida?

Sam Ogozalek, Tampa Bay Times, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In an open-air barn at the edge of the University of Florida, veterinarian Juan Campos Krauer examines a dead armadillo’s footpads and ears for signs of infection.

Its claws are curled tight and covered in blood. Campos Krauer thinks it was struck in the head while crossing a nearby road.

He then runs a scalpel down its underside. He removes all the important organs: heart, liver, kidneys. Once the specimens are bottled up, they’re destined for an ultra-cold freezer in his lab at the college.

Campos Krauer plans to test the armadillo for leprosy, an ancient illness also known as Hansen’s disease that can lead to nerve damage and disfigurement in humans. He and other scientists are trying to solve a medical mystery: why Central Florida has become a hot spot for the age-old bacteria that cause it.

Leprosy remains rare in the United States. But Florida, which often reports the most cases of any state, has seen an uptick in patients. The epicenter is east of Orlando. Brevard County reported a staggering 13% of the nation’s 159 leprosy cases in 2020, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of state and federal data.

Many questions about the phenomenon remain unanswered. But leprosy experts believe armadillos play a role in spreading the illness to people. To better understand who’s at risk and to prevent infections, about 10 scientists teamed up last year to investigate. The group includes researchers from the University of Florida, Colorado State University, and Emory University in Atlanta.

 

“How this transmission is happening, we really don’t know,” said Ramanuj Lahiri, chief of the laboratory research branch for the National Hansen’s Disease Program, which studies the bacteria involved and cares for leprosy patients across the country.

‘Nothing Was Adding Up’

Leprosy is believed to be the oldest human infection in history. It probably has been sickening people for at least 100,000 years. The disease is highly stigmatized — in the Bible, it was described as a punishment for sin. In more modern times, patients were isolated in “colonies” around the world, including in Hawaii and Louisiana.

In mild cases, the slow-growing bacteria cause a few lesions. If left untreated, they can paralyze the hands and feet.

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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