Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Contagious armadillos



Which of the photos above depicts the safer way to handle an armadillo? With rubber gloves (2nd image). With anything more than casual contact, this strange animal can transmit leprosy to humans! Long an urban legend, this is something scientists now confirm.* The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study revealing the probable zoonotic origin of leprosy - now referred to as Hansen's disease - in humans. Through genetics, researchers were able to establish that about 1/3 of the leprosy cases that arise each year in the U.S. almost certainly result from hunting, skinning, and eating infected armadillos (slideshow here). Researchers point out that the pathogen is much more likely to be picked up by consuming them than by retrieving roadkill, touching soil in which they have burrowed, or handling souvenirs made from their flesh. Here's a funny rhyme to drive that point home:
When you’re laying at your pillow
And you’re craving armadillo
Weigh the Cons and weigh the Pros
If you’d like to keep your nose
Remember that those recipes
Will probably give you leprosy.
The beasts range from Colorado to North Carolina, but the study concentrated on people in Louisiana and Texas.

Hansen's disease affects 150-250 Americans each year and can be treated with antibiotics if identified relatively quickly. If the symptomatic skin lesions are not recognized, leprosy results in lasting nerve damage. Even stranger than the fact that leprosy - like AIDS and SARS - is known to have jumped from animals to human is the fact that armadillos had acquired it from humans in the first place, 400-500 years ago. (The animals acquired it before they were used as test subjects in the laboratory to study the fragile causative microbe, which grows only in humans and armadillos.) "The important thing is that people should be discouraged from consuming armadillo flesh or handling it,” said researcher Dr. Richard W. Truman.

I will never think of my armadillo purse the same way again...

*This weird news somehow slipped by me back in April, so thanks go to Sue for bringing it to my attention.

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