Usually Florida sees an average of 10 cases of leprosy per year. But slightly more than halfway through 2015, the state already has nine cases, according to the latest reports from Florida counties. The cause of this outbreak? Fingers are being pointed at armadillos, although the source of the outbreak remains officially unclear.
Florida's Brevard County leads the state with three cases reported this year, followed by Volusia County with two cases and Flager, Indian River, Lake and Polk Counties reporting one each, Outbreak News Today reported. The United States sees anywhere to 150 to 250 cases of the disease annually, and Florida averages fewer than 10 cases per year.
Leprosy, a disease frequently discussed in the Bible, is formally known as Hansen's disease. It's caused by a long-term bacterial infection, and though it was once viewed as a highly contagious disease that led to social isolation, today it is considered rare and easy to treat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's passed from person to person through bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, that carry Hansen's disease, which can be carried on droplets from sneezes or coughs as well as other bodily secretions.
Genetic research by the National Hansen's Disease Program has shown that armadillos are also a possible source of infection for leprosy, although it noted that the risk of armadillo-to-human transmission was extremely low. No other animals are known to be hosts of the bacteria.
“Leprosy has been feared throughout human history, and there are still regions in several countries, including in the southern United States, where new cases of this disease continue to occur,” Richard W. Truman, a research scientist at the National Hansen's Disease Program who led the study, said at the time. Globally, about 250,000 new cases are reported every year. He said the study linking armadillos to leprosy transmission could help explain why new cases were still being found.
Once the bacteria are transmitted, it can take anywhere from two to 10 years for the symptoms of leprosy to begin. The CDC's list of such signs is long, ranging from discolored lesions and growths on the skin to eye problems, enlarged nerves and paralysis, particularly in the hands and feet. It is "easily treatable," according to the CDC, with antibiotics taken over the course of six months to two years.
The disease still carries enormous social stigma, which can leads to an added psychological toll.