There has been a number of Florida news reports in the past couple days concerning three cases of Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy in Volusia County during the past 5 months.

Public domain  Lithograph of a nine-banded armadillo from the 1918 National Geographic Small Mammal series
Public domain Lithograph of a nine-banded armadillo from the 1918 National Geographic Small Mammal series

Volusia County health officials say the unusually high number of cases of the ancient, disfiguring disease may be linked to exposure to armadillos.

The link between the zoonotic infection and armadillos is pretty well documented. A 2011 genetic study on this exact topic concluded that armadillos may be a source of infection in the Southern United States.

“Leprosy has been feared throughout human history, and there are still regions in several countries, including in the southern United States, where new cases of this disease continue to occur,” said Richard W. Truman, Ph.D., Research Scientist at the National Hansen’s Disease Program (NHDP).  “The results of this study will help us better understand where some of these infections originate.”

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.