About four or five months ago, every media outlet had jumped on the Florida leprosy bandwagon reporting cases in the Sunshine State linked to exposure to armadillos.

What is the status today?

hansensAccording to the Florida Department of Health data, from Jan. 1 to Nov. 22 this year, 20 cases of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease have been confirmed.

Cases have been reported from the following counties: Alachua (1), Brevard (6), Duval (2), Flagler (1), Indian River (1), Lake (1), Lee (1), Okaloosa (1), Orange (1), Palm Beach (1), Polk (2) and Volusia (2).

How does this compare to the rest of the country? According to the CDC’s Notifiable Diseases and Mortality Table published Nov. 20, the cumulative total of Hansen’s disease cases stands at 54.

Newly published research in the journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases shows that the nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), animals that naturally carry the leprosy bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae and have been linked to zoonotic infections, have spread their geography to affect more areas of the  southeastern United States.

Historically, armadillos were thought to be free of the infection in this part of the country.

According to the results from the study, lead by researchers from the National Hansen’s Disease Program (NHDP) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana we find the following:

We screened blood and tissue samples to determine the prevalence of M. leprae infection among 645 armadillos obtained at 8 locations in the southeastern United States (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida).

We detected antibodies to M. leprae−specific antigens at each location and in 16.4% (106/645) of all the samples screened.

In addition, researchers found that some armadillos and patients in the South Florida region had a distinctly different M. leprae genotype strain (3I-2-v15).

Armadillos in leprosy research/CDC
Armadillos in leprosy research/CDC

Armadillos are the only other known natural hosts of leprosy bacteria.

The NHDP does note that the risk of transmission from animals to humans is low, but armadillos are wild animals and should be treated as such, with all proper precautions.

The United States sees approximately 150 to 250 leprosy cases annually. 213 new cases were reported in the U.S. in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available).

During the ten-year-period of 2004 to 2014, Florida reported 92 cases, averaging less than 10 per year.

Leprosy is a chronic bacterial disease that primarily affects the skin, peripheral nerves and upper airway. Feared as a highly contagious and devastating disease, it is well established that Hansen’s disease (leprosy) is not highly transmissible, is very treatable, and, with early diagnosis and treatment, is not disabling.

Leprosy  remains the most misunderstood human infectious disease. The stigma long associated with the disease still exists in most of the world and the psychological and social effects may be more difficult to deal with than the actual physical illness.

Robert Herriman is a microbiologist and the Editor-in-Chief of Outbreak News Today and the Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch

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