Armadillos cause spike in leprosy cases in Florida

Experts believe these small mammals are causing a spike in leprosy cases in Florida.

FLAGLER COUNTY, FLORIDA (CNN) — There are an unusually high number of leprosy cases cropping up in Florida.

Experts said they believe the spike is because of people coming into contact with armadillos.

Florida typically sees two to 12 cases of leprosy a year, but so far there have been nine cases in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The latest case was diagnosed in Flagler County three weeks ago.

Some armadillos, placental mammals with leathery armor, are naturally infected with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Armadillos are one of the only known animals to carry leprosy, an age-old disease that causes skin and nerve damage.

The CDC says it is possible to contract leprosy through contact with armadillos, but it is usually unlikely.

Leprosy is a rare disease, and there are on average 50 to 100 cases in the United States every year, according to Dr. Sunil Joshi, president-elect of the Duval County Medical Society in Florida.

Joshi said leprosy, much like tuberculosis, is spread through coughing and sneezing, but 95% of the human population is immune to the disease.

Also, the disease can lie dormant for months or years before the first signs of infection appear, Joshi said. Typically the first signs are skin lesions, and symptoms can progress to neurological problems such as psychosis and seizures.

Although the increase in leprosy cases is unusual, Joshi said it can also be attributed to Florida’s growing home development.

“There is a clear reason why this is happening in Florida,” Joshi said. “New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos’ homes in the process. Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside.”

The prognosis for people who contract leprosy is usually good if the disease is treated promptly, Joshi said. Left untreated, the leprosy can become life threatening.

Experts are urging Floridians to use caution and not touch the small, cat-sized creatures. Armadillos are common in Florida and found across most of the state, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Naturally nocturnal, armadillos are now in their breeding season in Florida, and it’s not uncommon to see them in the daylight with their babies.

In 2010, there were more than 220,000 cases of leprosy detected worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. But Joshi said the disease is typically found in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where population density is higher, and the spread of infection is due to human-to-human contact.

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