How Armadillos Are Spreading Leprosy in Florida

How Armadillos Are Spreading Leprosy in Florida
General Health

The land of fun in the sun has had a spate of challenges lately such as a GMO mosquito release in the Florida Keys, dengue fever, and the infamous chagas disease outbreak.

Now the great state of Florida has an annual outbreak of leprosy to deal with. The leprosy is being spread by armadillos which love the hot weather and bug-filled terrain of the Sunshine State.

Using their long, sticky tongues, armadillos forage for ants, termites, and beetles, as well as other insects. They also enjoy a hearty diet of grubs and worms. Herein lies the crux of the matter with regard to the many Floridians who come into contact with armadillos.

During dry spells, armadillos are well-known throughout Florida for getting into back yards and literally tearing them up. The longer the drought, the harder the ground which forces the armadillos to dig deeper for their food. It’s not uncommon to find 10, 20, or 30 holes dug into the lawn when an armadillo is on the prowl in your neighborhood. They can inflict more damage to a well-manicured lawn than anything you’ve ever seen before.

Lawn damage inflicted by an armadillo
Lawn damage inflicted by an armadillo

Given this recurring state of affairs, there are countless attempts to capture armadillos in Florida, often by extremely frustrated homeowners. This process can often bring armadillos in direct contact with people on their own property. Most homeowners are unaware that armadillos carry leprosy, and therefore they unknowingly expose themselves to the offending bacterium by actually handling the armadillos.

“The first connections between the disease and armadillos were established in a 2011 paper entitled “Problematic Zoonotic Leprosy in the Southern United States.” Genome resequencing of three US patients with leprosy and a nine-banded armadillo found the infective strains to be almost identical, proving that zoonosis—diseases that can be passed from animals to humans—was at play.” [1]

There is another little known fact about armadillos that ought to be considered by the unsuspecting Florida homeowner and motorist. Although slow-moving, armadillos have various defensive measures.

In addition to rolling up into a very tight ball to frustrate predators, they are also known to leap straight up into the air as high as 4 to 5 feet. That’s why so many armadillos are killed crossing the hot Florida pavement. Their instinct when danger presents is to bound straight up into the air in order to “shock and awe” their predators. This is exactly what they will do when a truck or car drives over them. They are then killed by the impact with the undercarriage of the fast-moving vehicle.

Again, unsuspecting motorists may take initiative to help armadillos cross the street. They may also try to help injured ones on the roadside unaware that such contact can trigger a case of leprosy. An exposure to a leprosy-carrying armadillo, incidentally, can actually take up to twenty years to manifest as the full-blown disease.

“Leprosy is caused by mycobacterium laprae, a slow growing bacillus, and can be transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth of people with severe, untreated cases of the disease. The glacial rate of growth of the bacteria means that symptoms may not materialize anywhere from four to 20 years after the disease has been contracted.” [1]

There is another factor in the rising rate of leprosy in Florida. There are those locals in the rural counties where hunting for game is done as another source of food. This practice significantly increases the risk of leprosy because of the whole process of handling and preparing the animal for dinner.

Armadillo hunting is growing in popularity


The best way to avoid leprosy is to avoid all contact with armadillos. They are quite shy by nature and will surely avoid human contact, even if they don’t run away initially. Because their eyesight is so poor, they rely heavily on their acute sense of smell. Hence, it is easy to misunderstand their failure to run as friendliness.

Moral of the story: Best not to make friends with an armadillo.


[1] The Daily Beast


The Health Coach