Up to 20 percent of U.S. armadillos are infected with leprosy -- and now a new study has found that these quirky little creatures may be transmitting the infectious disease directly to humans.
The findings, out today in the New England Journal of Medicine, say that wild armadillos and human patients in the Southern United States often share the same strain of leprosy, leading the researchers to conclude that it may be a regional zoonosis, or a disease that can be passed from animal to human.
"A preponderance of evidence shows that people get leprosy from these animals,” lead author Richard W. Truman, director of microbiology at the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge, told the Los Angeles Times.
Before this study, scientists largely believed that leprosy, also known as Hansen's Disease could only be passed from human to human. Each year, according to the Associated Press, about 150 people in the U.S. receive a leprosy diagnosis, with typical symptoms including skin lesions, muscle weakness and a numbness in the hands, arms, feet and legs.
The condition has been recognized since biblical times -- and because it's tied to progressive debilitation and long-term nerve damage, it has prompted some governments and leaders to isolate patients into leper colonies. The U.S., for instance, opened its first major leprosy center in Louisianna in 1894, according to Slate.com, and continued allowing for mandatory isolation until 1974.
Today, though, antibiotics are used to kill the disease-causing bacteria. With early treatment, people can avoid long-term complications and maintain a normal lifestyle.
The common wisdom in the medical community has typically been that people pick up this rare disease abroad -- but only about two thirds of those who are diagnosed have spent time in areas where leprosy is common, Reuters reports.
Studies have also shown that people with unexplained cases of the disease -- those who have never had any contact with sufferers -- often live in areas where armadillos are common, mostly Texas and Louisiana.
Now the researchers believe that the missing link may come down to these nine-banded armadillos, which are prolific in the South -- even earning the nickname "hillbilly speed bump" for their tendency to be run over by cars. The scientists have suggested that the leprosy transmission happens from handling the animal frequently or eating it, according to MSNBC.
But even if you have cozied up to an armadillo, there's no need to panic: according to Scientific American, about 95 percent of us are naturally immune to leprosy. And, reports NPR, the risk of contracting leprosy from brief contact -- even moving armadillo roadkill -- is still quite low. "Leprosy is not a very robust pathogen," Truman told NPR.