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STUDY: Armadillos Carry Bacteria That Causes Leprosy

armadillos, leprosy, armadillos carry leprosy

(Photo by Schellhorn/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The last leper colony in the U.S. is in Hawaii. Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula off Molokai, is still home to a handful of people infected with leprosy, although antibiotics are now available to treat the disease, and people with leprosy are no longer sequestered from society. The National Park Service designated Kalaupapa a National Historical Park in 1980 and once the last patient dies, the area—one of the last undeveloped places in Hawaii and home to many rare species—is likely to become fully opened up to tourism. Another leper facility in Louisiana closed in the late 1990s.

So what does the future hold for this ancient disease? The CDC says that thousands of cases of the disease are diagnosed every year, and two million people are permanently disabled as a result of Hansen’s disease. Right now, most of those people are in Indonesia and Brazil. The disease is now treatable with a multi-course mix of antibiotics over a period of one to two years. However, any nerve damage that occurs before treatment is permanent. So long as people are treated with antibiotics, preferably early, they won’t spread it further.

However, the bacterium is still out there, and many armadillos carry it. Armadillos thrive in hot climates, and as the Earth heats up, their ranges are spreading. In the U.S., the nine-banded armadillo, which is native to Latin America, has extended its range northward and is now found not only in warm southern states like Texas and Florida, but is now seen as far north as Kansas, Tennessee, South Dakota, and the Iowa state line.

They have no predators—except for cars. So if they aren’t where you are now, chances are good they will be there soon. But you may want to pass on that armadillo dish.

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