Beware the Armadillo

News & Tips: Beware the Armadillo

Armadillos are those cute little armor covered animals that waddle around blindly along highways. Often called 'possums on the half shell, these seemingly harmless animals could well be one of your worst nightmares. Armadillos are known to transmit leprosy to human beings.

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Armadillos are known to transmit leprosy to human beings, and therefore should be avoided.

Long regarded as a disease of Biblical times, leprosy still pops up and may actually be spreading in the United states, according to researchers. However, it is often misdiagnosed leading to disastrous results.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is a slow, chronic sickness that often leads to disfigurement and disability by attacking the peripheral nervous system and by deteriorating motor skills. Additionally, scientists aren't certain how it is transmitted.

Infection and symptoms can take from three to 10 years to begin, making it difficult for medical personnel to find where or how people catch the dreaded disease.

Leprosy patients gradually lose feeling in their fingers and toes, leaving them vulnerable to repeated burns and cuts which in turn get infected. Repeated damage leads to bone absorption and eventual motor nerve deterioration leading fingers to shorten and curve, resulting in the infamous claw-like appearance.

Leprosy can be treated if caught in the early stages. Nerve damage in the later stages is not reversible. Only recently have scientists been able to connect the spread of leprosy from armadillos to humans.

DNA tests have shown a match in the leprosy strain between some patients and the TV-style, miniature, monster-looking armadillo. "Now we have the link," said James Krahenbuhl, who heads the government leprosy program.

Residents of some southern states hunt and eat armadillos as a delicacy. Scientists say that is where the trouble begins. Otherwise, the risk of contracting leprosy is very low.

Of the 150 cases of leprosy discovered in the U.S. each year, researchers believe a third may be caused by extensive handling or eating of the armored animals. Most leprosy cases are actually imported from third world countries where it is more common.

Scientists at the National Hansen's Disease Programs in Baton Rouge, La.,took DNA samples from 33 wild armadillos in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. They also took skin biopsies from 50 leprosy patients being treated at a Baton Rouge clinic. Seventy-five percent of them had never had foreign exposure, but lived in southern states when they could have been exposed to armadillos.

Samples from the patients and armadillos were genetically similar. They were also different from leprosy strains found elsewhere in the world. The unique U.S. strain was found in 28 armadillos and 25 patients.

While the work did not document transmission from animal to human, "the evidence is is pretty convincing that it happens," said Dr. Brain Currie, an infectious disease expert who had no role in the study.

Those most at risk of contagion are family members who are in constant contact with an untreated person.

Armadillos often provide fun for outdoors people. The ancient critters are near blind. Outdoorsmen often sneak up on the ancient animals and scare them, causing the feeding animals to jump high in the air. Lead researcher Richard Truman offered some wise advice for all of those armadillo lovers: "Leave the animals alone."

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