Spitting Armadillos Blamed for Florida's Emerging Leprosy Problem

Public health officials suspect that armadillos may be the cause of a number of leprosy cases recently diagnosed in Florida. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Health officials in Florida are urging residents to keep away from armadillos, which they suspect are the cause of an increasing number of cases of leprosy in the state. According to local media reports, nine people in the state have been diagnosed with the disease so far this year. Florida typically sees an annual total of 10 cases in an entire year. Doctors diagnosed the most recent case three weeks ago in Flagler County, on Florida's east coast.

Earlier this week, Dr. Sunil Joshi of the Duval County Medical Society in Jacksonville told CNN that the uptick in leprosy cases may be due to rising real estate development in the area. As more houses are built, armadillos' homes are being destroyed, so they are out and about more often during the daytime and coming into contact with more people.

Armadillos are the only animals known to carry leprosy. A paper published by The New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 identified the same strain of bacteria in one wild armadillo and three leprosy patients.

But not all armadillos appear to pose a risk. Earlier this year, health officials identified the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) as the likely culprit for spreading the disfiguring disease that most people associate with the Old Testament, not Sunshine State retirement communities.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria. The bacteria can be transmitted through fluids from the nose and mouth. (Some animal experts have warned the public this week that armadillos spit, and that, if you see one of these creatures, it's best to keep a distance.)

The incubation period for the disease can last between five and 20 years. Leprosy is associated with a number of unpleasant symptoms, including skin lesions that last for several weeks or months and cause permanent disfigurement. Over time, the disease damages the peripheral nerve system, eyes and nasal passages, and may cause collapsed facial features and claw-like hands. Thankfully, leprosy is treatable with a course of antibiotics that lasts between six months to two years.

Leprosy is very rare in the U.S. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 100 diagnosed cases of leprosy occur each year in the country. Most cases are found in Southern states, including Texas, Louisiana and Florida. But the disease is still a scourge in other areas of the world, including parts of West Africa, China, India and Southeast Asia. In 2012, 189,018 known cases and 232,857 new cases were diagnosed worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

The CDC says you are unlikely to contract leprosy through armadillos, but the agency recommends that people avoid contact with the animal "when possible."