Leprosy is rare in the U.S. but in Florida, up to a dozen cases are reported each year. The suspected culprits are armadillos. Florida health and wildlife experts are warning residents to steer clear of them in light of a reported spike in cases. VPC
JACKSONVILLE — Florida health and wildlife experts are warning residents to steer clear of armadillos in light of a reported spike in cases of leprosy.
So far this year, nine cases have been reported in Florida, according to the state Department of Health. Between two and 12 cases are reported each year, an agency spokesman told WTLV on Tuesday.
“Hansen’s disease, formerly known as leprosy, is caused by Mycobacterium lepraebacteria,” which has also been found in nine-banded armadillos, deputy press secretary Brad Dalton said in a email.
Each case reported this year has involved people who had direct contact with armadillos, said Dr. Sunil Joshi, president-elect of the Duval County Medical Society, adding that there were also reports in nearby Volusia and Flagler counties.
“Brevard County’s where most of the cases were,” Joshi said.
Still, health experts warn that contact with the disease-carrying animals is not the only way Hansen’s can be transmitted.
“Although the mode of transmission of Hansen’s disease is not clearly defined, most investigators believe that (Hansen’s) is usually spread person-to-person in respiratory droplets following extended close contact with an infected person, such as living in the same household,” said Dalton.
While it’s possible, there’s a low risk of contracting the disease from armadillos and most people coming into contact with them are unlikely to get Hansen’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Extended close contact with infected armadillos may also pose exposure risk to (Hansen’s). For many cases, the exposure causing the infection is unknown because it can take months or years for illness to develop,” he added.
Even so, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the CDC and the Health Department advise avoiding contact with armadillos whenever possible.
“Generally, you don’t want to be playing with wild animals anyway,” Dalton said.
Karen Parker, spokeswoman for FWC, echoed that advice. “Teach your kids to stay away from them. Don’t try to pet them and don’t try to grab them,” she said.
The animals tend to be skittish anyway, so there’s very little risk of coming into contact with them unless they’re nesting near your home. Parker also suggested keeping your pets indoors or close by if you spot holes in your yard or your neighborhood to avoid putting them at risk.
About 95% of people are resistant to infection, according to the Health Department. Those who do develop clinical illness can experience a variety of symptoms, including infectious to their skin, nerves and mucus.