Florida is experiencing an unusual spike in leprosy cases and experts believe this has something to do with people coming in contact with armadillos, placental mammals characterized by their iconic leathery armor.
The state typically has two to a dozen cases of leprosy per year but the Florida Department of Health revealed that there are already nine cases for this year. The latest of these cases was diagnosed three weeks ago.
Armadillos are naturally infected with the illness otherwise known as Hansen's disease. The mammal is one of the few animals that carry the disease, which causes nerve and skin damage.
The rare disease, which only has between 50 and 100 cases in the U.S. per year, can spread through sneezing and coughing, much like infection with tuberculosis. However, 95 percent of humans have immunity against the disease.
Duval County Medical Society president-elect Sunil Joshi said that leprosy can remain dormant for years before the initial symptoms of infection come out as the bacterium grows slowly. The first symptoms are skin lesions and these could worsen to neurological complications such as seizures and psychosis.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that although it is usually unlikely for people to contract leprosy through armadillos, infection is still possible through contact with the animal.
Joshi said the unusual surge in leprosy cases can be blamed on the increasing home development in Florida.
"New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos' homes in the process," Joshi said. "Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside."
Leprosy, a chronic infectious disease, mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, the upper respiratory tract and the eyes and can become life-threatening, Joshi said, but the prognosis for those infected is often good if the condition is treated early. Treatment is a multidrug course of antibiotics for 6 months to 2 years.
Floridians were advised to be cautious and avoid touching armadillos, which are common and can be seen across most of Florida. The cat-sized creatures are naturally nocturnal but it is breeding season right now so it is not unusual to see the animals along with their young during the day.
Figures from the World Health Organization show that there were more than 220,000 leprosy cases worldwide in 2010. The disease is normally found in parts of Southeast Asia and Asia, which have higher population density and where infection is spread through contact with infected individuals.
Photo: Chris van Dyck | Flickr