JACKSONVILLE, Fla., July 22 (UPI) -- Nine people in Florida have been diagnosed with leprosy so far this year, several of whom reported recent contact with armadillos.
The claim has led wildlife and health officials to suggest spitting armadillos are at least partially to blame for the slight uptick in cases -- in a state that normally averages 10 leprosy diagnoses per year.
A 2011 study found that armadillos naturally harbor the bacteria (mycobacterium laprae) that causes leprosy, a chronic infection that if left untreated can result in nerve damage, severe muscle weakness and permanent disabilities.
Thought by many to be a relic of the past, the infection, known as Hansen's Disease, persists in modern times. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's disabled more than 2 million people around the world, mostly in Africa and South Asia.
In the United States, cases are most common in Texas and Louisiana. Most infections are spread by infected humans, via sneezing and coughing.
But an influx of armadillos into the Sunshine State, where the leathery armored rat-like mammals aren't native, could make Florida a leprosy hotspot -- relatively speaking.
"There is a clear reason why this is happening in Florida," Dr. Sunil Joshi, president-elect of the Duval County Medical Society, told CNN. "New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos' homes in the process. Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside."
Armadillos are tough to corner and capture and can spit at those threatening them, like a someone breaking up a nest or trapping one in a cage.
Luckily for those infected, the disease is treatable with antibiotics. But it's important to catch the infection earlier, as the slow-growing bacteria may not render symptoms for four or more years after it's contracted.
Most don't have to worry about leprosy at all. Doctors suggest as much as 95 percent of the adult population is unable to contract the disease.