For years, animal expert Dave Seerveld had heard bits of “wildlife trivia” about an alleged link between armadillos and leprosy in Southern states.
And he was paying attention. Seerveld makes his living in Orlando, FL, helping homeowners deal with armadillos and other wildlife pests. His website includes lots of photos of Seerveld holding the critters. And he’s a health-conscious guy.
Now it appears there is something to those long-held suspicions. A paper published last week in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reveals that people in the Deep South contract leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) on their home turf — virtually in their back yards. And the evidence strongly suggests they are infected by armadillos.
According to the study, about 150 cases of leprosy are diagnosed each year in the US. About two-thirds of those people contract the disease while travelling overseas. But epidemiologists have long been curious about the other third that get sick at home — mostly in Texas and Louisiana. And armadillos have been the primary suspect.
For uninitiated Yankees, armadillos are small mammals, related to anteaters and sloths, best-known for their dinosaur-like armor and small, rodent-like head. They are native to Texas, Louisiana and warmer climes extending to South America. Like raccoons, they thrive in urban and suburban areas, where they can be considered pests.
Scientists learned in the 1960s that armadillos are susceptible to leprosy. In fact, a small percentage already have the disease. This is largely because the animal has an unusually low body temperature of 90˚ Fahrenheit, 8 degrees lower than humans, which favors the bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae).
M. leprae does not thrive at 98˚, which is why it affects human extremities — hands and feet and skin.
The armadillo’s susceptibility led to attempts to develop an experimental vaccine that could be used to eliminate the disease worldwide. But that vaccine was only partially effective.
Research now concludes that 6 to 10 percent of armadillos in the Deep South are carrying M. leprae, and in some places it could be as high as 20 percent.
But how is the disease transmitted from varmit to person?
Seerveld says he frequently handles armadillos without gloves. But most armadillos don’t carry the disease, he reasoned, and most people are effectively immune to it. So he saw it as a low-risk proposition. And researchers agree.
Eating them, however, is a different story. And in Texas, armadillo has become something of a blue-collar delicacy, a popular candidate for stews and chili bowls. Google “armadillo” and half your hits will be recipes, mostly for barbecue or chili.
For Seerveld, that’s going too far. “I’ve never eaten armadillo meat, although I have met many people who have,” he says. “Some people are curious about the taste, and others are more akin to bushmeat hunters, who will eat anything.”
To get sick, several things have to go wrong. Once people decide to eat the meat, then they have to undercook it – because thorough cooking will quickly kill the bacteria. Even then, people also need to be unlucky, since most armadillos do NOT carry the disease, and most people are immune to it.
So people are likely to keep carving up armadillo meat and tossing it in the chili pot, Seerveld says. Because, in America, “everything is considered a delicacy by someone.”