(Health.com) — Several years ago, an 81-year-old woman with a raised patch of dry skin on her arm visited Mississippi dermatologist John Abide, M.D.
Although the lesion looked only slightly abnormal, a series of lab tests revealed that it was a symptom of leprosy.
“I thought, ‘Leprosy, are you kidding me?'” says Abide, whose practice is in Greenville. His surprise was understandable.
Each year only about 150 people in the U.S. are infected with leprosy, a bacterial disease that can lead to nerve damage and disfigurement. In most cases, people are infected after being exposed to saliva from an infected person, usually while traveling to parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, where the disease is more prevalent.
But Abide’s patient didn’t fit this description.
A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine may provide an explanation for her case: armadillos. The leathery shelled mammals, which can be found in 10 states throughout the Southeastern U.S., are the only animals besides humans known to carry leprosy.
There have been several anecdotal reports of leprosy in humans who have handled, killed or eaten armadillos, or who may have been indirectly exposed by gardening in soil where the animals burrow, as was the case for Abide’s patient.