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Are Armadillos Really Bringing a Plague of Leprosy to Florida?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida has seen more cases of leprosy than in previous years. Most shockingly of all, armadillos may have caused the infections.

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So far in 2015, there have been nine cases of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, in the Sunshine State. On average, there are anywhere between two and 12 cases per year.

How is the disease spreading so quickly this year? Experts say that Florida’s nine-banded armadillos are to blame for what many associate with Biblical plague.

Apparently this particular breed of armadillo can carry leprosy. Even though about 95% of humans are naturally immune to the disease, it can still spread quickly.

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Some people, however, may not know they have the condition right away, as it can lay dormant for several years before showing symptoms. Skin lesions are typically the first sign but can evolve over time to neurological problems like psychosis and seizures.

Leprosy is a bacterial disease that affects the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, and nerves. The disease is usually spread person-to-person through saliva or “respiratory droplets” from close contact with an infected person, usually in the same household, according to Florida Department of Health deputy press secretary Brad Dalton.

Those who may be working outside for extended periods of time may have a greater risk of coming into contact with armadillos. Not only are the naturally nocturnal creatures out during the day for breeding season, but they’ve also been forced out of their homes due to construction in what were once their natural habitats.

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Above all, health professionals warn Florida residents and others who may see the armadillos not to touch or pet the animals.

Floridians who think they may be at risk for leprosy can have a doctor look into their family practice EMR, or electronic medical records. The use of electronic health records, which increased in use by 21% between 2012 and 2013, has also made it easier for the state and agencies like the CDC to keep track of how many cases of leprosy occur each year.

Thankfully, even the nine cases found in Florida so far this year are small compared with national and worldwide statistics for the disease.

In the United States, outbreaks are rare, with only about 50 to 100 documented cases per year — thankfully nowhere near plague levels.

Worldwide, however, some nations see much higher instances than developed countries like the United States. The World Health Organization reported a staggering 220,000 cases of the disease in 2010, most commonly in some densely populated parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

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