Is it True That Armadillos Carry Leprosy?

armadillo carries leprosy

When people began to say that Armadillos carry leprosy, no one thought to outright question the myth.  At the time that the idea first started, it was commonly known that many animals carried diseases that were transmitted to humans.  It seemed that leprosy was just another to add to this list.  But is it true that Armadillos carry leprosy and if so, can they infect humans?

It’s been know for a few years that Armadillos were carriers of leprosy.  According to scientists, they are the only animal other than humans that can host the bacteria that causes leprosy.  It’s important to talk about exactly why because it does tell us a bit about the bacteria and the likelihood of it’s transmission. It’s believed, although not proven, that Armadillos carry leprosy because of their body temperature.  While it isn’t extremely close to that of humans, it is stable and steady.  Unlike other animals who’s body temperatures fluctuate, these armored creature have a pretty good handle on keeping their body temperature the same. Since the bacteria that causes leprosy is a very fragile bacteria, they need a stable temperature.  Scientists have hypothesized that this is what enables Armadillos to carry leprosy.

Do all Armadillos carry leprosy?

No.  There are several types of Armadillos and it has not been concluded that all types of Armadillos carry leprosy. Instead, it was discovered that the 9 banded Armadillos carry leprosy.  At that time it was believed that Armadillos were unlikely to spread the bacteria to humans, mostly in the American South.  While only a few cases of transmission were reported, it seemed most people thought that it was due to isolated exposures.

Previously it was known that Armadillos carry leprosy, the exact same strain as humans, but now it seems that more Armadillos are spreading the disease. However, still not in the USA.  It’s mostly in the Brazilian Amazon that humans are infected by Armadillos that carry leprosy. Populations in the rural areas actually have more contact with Armadillos that carry leprosy than Americans.  This doesn’t mean that American Armadillos are more safe though.

Can Armadillos that carry leprosy give it to humans?

Absolutely. Armadillos that carry leprosy can pass the bacteria on to humans. In a 2018 study, Colorado State University and some colleagues in Brazil captured some Armadillos and tested them for leprosy bacteria.  They tested 16 Armadillos and 10 of them had leprosy.  Only 7 out of the 146 people were diagnosed with leprosy but the number of people exposed to it was shocking.

Over 60% of the Brazilian people tested had positive antibodies for the bacteria, which is widely accepted as proof of exposure.  This doesn’t mean that looking at or being around an Armadillo that carries leprosy will give it to a human. The researchers collecting the data from the region believed that the transmission occurred because the people there eat the Armadillos.  Since they are abundant, people there hunt and kill them for food, unaware that the Armadillos carry leprosy.

While some cases have been confirmed in America where Armadillos passed leprosy to humans, it’s far less likely.  Americans don’t typically eat these animals and therefore get much less exposure.  This means that even though Armadillos carry leprosy, they only pass it on to humans if they are handled or ingested.


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