Armadillos as carriers of leprosy



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Armadillos form a reservoir for leprosy pathogens

Armadillos are apparently responsible for the fact that leprosy still occurs in the USA today. The last survivors from the mammal family of so-called armored articulated joints (Cingulata) carry bacteria that can cause leprosy in humans. Researchers report this in the online edition of the “New England Journal of Medicine”.

When examining the armadillos, the researchers discovered a special strain of the pathogen Mycobacterium leprae, which was found both in the animals and in leprosy patients who were also examined. These bacteria enable the armadillos to transmit leprosy and are responsible for the fact that leprosy still occurs in the United States today, the researchers write.

Special Mycobacterium leprae detected in armadillos As part of their study, the scientists compared the DNA of the bacteria from 33 armadillos from the southern United States with the bacterial DNA of 50 leprosy patients. They were able to detect a special, previously unknown strain of the pathogen Mycobacterium leprae in 28 armadillos and 25 leprosy patients. Their results confirm that armadillos can infect people with leprosy, the researchers said. The significance of the study is all the more clear since 22 patients have never left North America in their lives, which means that other sources of infection outside the United States could be virtually ruled out. Eight of the leprosy patients also stated that they had direct contact with armadillos. One of the lepers even said he had hunted and eaten the armadillos. The mystery of recurrent leprosy in the US seems to be solved. The armadillos apparently still form a reservoir for the leprosy bacteria, which were probably introduced to the American continent with the first European immigrants.

Leprosy used to be one of the most feared diseases. Until the late 19th century, leprosy was one of the most feared infectious diseases worldwide. Only after the Norwegian doctor Gerhard Armauer Hansen discovered the disease-causing bacterium Mycobacterium leprae in 1873 could treatment progress gradually be made. The breakthrough finally came in the 1940s with the development of sulfonamide therapy. The use of the antibiotic Dapson (DDS), which is still important today, in leprosy therapy was also introduced at this time. Since the 1970s, leprosy has been treated with combination therapies consisting of several antibiotics, and since 1982 the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended polychemotherapy to treat the disease. Although the disease has since almost been eradicated in most industrialized countries, there are still occasional infections in the USA that are not due to a stay abroad, but - as is now clear - to a transmission of the pathogens by armadillos. Worldwide, however, leprosy is far from being defeated anyway. Leprosy continues to occur today, particularly in poorer developing countries with poor hygiene standards. The WHO assumes that almost 245,000 people worldwide will suffer from leprosy in 2009. In Germany, however, leprosy does not pose any particular health threat. In 2010, only two cases were reported in Germany, whereby the patients were infected during a stay in Asia. (fp)

Picture: Dr. Karl Herrmann / pixelio.de

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