WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Although armadillos are the only natural host of leprosy besides humans, their spread across Kansas doesn’t present much of a threat to state residents, experts say.
The infection rates for armadillos varies by location, ranging from slightly more than 20 percent to 5 percent, said Ramanuj Lahiri, a Louisiana based biochemist who specializes in leprosy research. The chances of someone contracting leprosy, officially called Hansen’s Disease, from a Kansas armadillo are “extremely remote,” he said. Even so, his group, the National Hansen’s Disease Program, is preaching caution and educating people on avoiding that possibility.
Kansas hasn’t counted the number of armadillos in the state and none have been tested for leprosy. Armadillo numbers seem to have increased annually during the last 25 years as they migrated farther and farther north, The Wichita Eagle reported.
“When I first came down to Pratt in the mid-70s, they were a real rarity,” said biologist Ken Brunson of the Nature Conservancy of Kansas. “That’s a lot different now. They’re a pretty common feature around here. Now we’re getting more and more records of them in northern Kansas. They’re not much a surprise anymore.”
Stan Roth, a retired biology teacher from Lawrence, said his research found the first documented case of an armadillo in Kansas was near the Oklahoma state line in the 1940s, but they remained rare in the state for years.
“Starting 20 years ago, I started putting pins in maps where armadillos had been seen in Kansas,” Roth said. “The first map lasted a while. Now I’m on my sixth map, I think, because I keep putting so many pins in them.”
Armadillos have been documented in all 105 Kansas counties, but most are in the southern two or three tiers of counties. The entire southeastern part of the U.S. now has strong armadillo populations and they’re found as far north as southern Illinois.
Lahiri says it isn’t known how leprosy is transmitted but with armadillos it’s probably from direct human contact with an infected animal’s flesh or blood. Another possible contamination scenario would be someone moving a dead armadillo to another location or someone handling a live armadillo.
Lahiri said researchers believe most people, about 95 percent of them, are naturally immune to leprosy.
“It also is slow developing and can take three to five years for the symptoms to begin to show,” he said. “Also leprosy can be cured. It is easily treated with a three-drug cocktail and treatment usually takes six months to two years. It’s all very easy.”
Lahiri’s group said leprosy is “very rare” in the U.S., with often fewer than 200 new cases annually.
“We don’t recommend handling armadillos, but if people do they should take general hygienic measures,” said Lahiri. “They should wear gloves. The most simple thing you could do would be to wash your hands well with soap and warm water if you’ve been around an armadillo.”