Alarms about funny-looking creatures spreading terrifying, debilitating illnesses seem more fitting for histories of Early Modern Europe or Biblical tales, but every now and then a truly strange contemporary case emerges. And (of course) the latest comes from Florida, where spitting armadillos are being blamed for an outbreak of leprosy that has so far affected nine individuals.

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Leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s Disease is pretty rare in the modern-day U.S. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services state that there are around 6,500 cases current cases of the chronic condition, with fewer than 100 new cases of the disease diagnosed each year. The disease is caused by the mycobacterium laprae, a slow growing bacillus that has been referred to as a “wimp of a pathogen,” which is spread by contact with droplets from the nose or mouth of infected individuals. The pathogen itself has a hard time surviving outside of the body and has been notoriously difficult to grow in lab conditions.

As such the disease only persists in humans and, slightly oddly, armadillos. The New World mammals and their leathery shell provide exactly the right temperature for the bacteria to flourish and it’s thought that humans spread the disease to armadillos some 400-500 years ago. In Florida, where typically only two-12 individuals are diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease each year, the presence of nine cases by late July has raised alarm, and officials are concerned that these cases may be linked to contact with armadillos.

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It’s difficult to pin down the exact source of any instance of Hansen’s, as the disease can take months or even years to present itself following exposure. But in two of the first three cases diagnosed this year in Florida, the patients reported recent close contact with armadillos. Speaking to USA Today, Brad Dalton of the Florida Department of health explained, “Extended close contact with infected armadillos may also pose exposure risk to (Hansen’s),” adding “Generally, you don’t want to be playing with wild animals anyway.”

So why the sudden concern regarding armadillos? Well, it turns out the development of new housing estates is displacing Florida’s armadillo populations. Speaking to CNN, Dr. Sunil Joshi, president-elect of the Duval County Medical Society in Florida said, “New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos’ homes in the process. Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside.”

For those who live in the Southern states, California and Hawaii, where the majority of new leprosy cases are diagnosed, it’s important to note that the first symptoms typically include skin lesions, and can progress to seizures and psychosis. The good news is that modern antibiotics can treat the condition very quickly, as long as it is promptly identified, and no quarantine period is needed.

Via The Daily Beast

Images via Shutterstock