After several cases of Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy) were reported in Florida, the state’s Department of Health has alerted residents that armadillos may play a role in the transmission of the disease but that their role is not fully understood.
Typically between 2–12 cases of Hansen’s disease are reported in Florida each year, but in 2015 there have already been nine cases from state residents. Identifying the exposure source can be difficult because the incubation period is from 2–10 years; the department stated that a particular strain of Hansen’s disease has been identified in infected individuals in the Southeastern U.S. and found in armadillos in the same region. It is recommended that people avoid contact with wild animals, particularly armadillos, and take precautions such as wearing gloves or washing hands prior to and after exposure if contact is necessary.
Infected patients are classified as having paucibacillary or multibacillary Hansen’s disease, characterized by the following:
- Paucibacillary Hansen’s disease: one or a few hypopigmented skin macules that exhibit loss of sensation.
- Multibacillary Hansen’s disease: multiple symmetrically-distributed skin lesions that might not exhibit loss of sensation; nodules; plaques; thickened dermis; frequent involvement of the nasal mucosa resulting in nasal congestion and epistaxis.
A skin biopsy is needed to make a definitive diagnosis. Treatment typically consists of a combination of antibiotics for six months to two years to fight the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae that causes the disease.