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Armadillos May Be Behind Increase In Florida Leprosy Cases

Armadillos are the only mammals -- other than humans -- that can carry leprosy. Nine cases of leprosy were reported in Florida this year.
Nathan Rupert
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A high number of leprosy cases have been appearing in Florida. The possible culprit: armadillos. 

This year, nine cases have been reported in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health. The state usually gets about two to 12 cases a year. 

In light of the spike in reported leprosy cases, wildlife officials recommend people wear gloves when handling any animals.

Armadillos are the only mammals -- other than humans -- that can carry leprosy, says Ron Magill, spokesman for Zoo Miami. He stresses, however, that unlike humans, armadillos never show any symptoms.

“Just because you see an armadillo and it looks healthy, does not mean it cannot be carrying leprosy,” Magill adds.

The Mycobacterium leprae bacteria are responsible for leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. The illness can take months or years to develop, and it can cause infections of the skin, peripheral nerves and nasal mucosa. 

Close contact with infected armadillos may lead to Hansen’s disease, but the risk is low, according to the Center for Disease Control. The disease is treatable with antibiotics.

Magill, who has been working with Zoo Miami for more than 30 years, says people should wash their hands when handling any animals, including armadillos.

“Hopefully, this will discourage people from keeping armadillos as pets,” he says.

The latest case of leprosy was reported in Flagler County, Florida three weeks ago.

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Alexander Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the University of Miami. He majored in English and was the the editor-in-chief of The Miami Hurricane newspaper from 2014-15. He was WLRN's digital intern during summer 2015. He subscribes to too many podcasts and can't get away from covering the arts in Miami.