Leprosy is an infectious disease that has been around for thousands of years. It can cause legions to appear on the surface of the skin and can cause nerve damage that leads to loss of feeling in various parts of the body, but it is curable with treatment.
Infections in humans is very rare thanks to modern medical care, with only 63 cases of the disease having been documented in the U.S. in 2015, but they still happen from time to time. On the other hand, it turns out humans aren’t the only ones capable of carrying Leprosy, and it’s still being carried to this day.
New research published in the journal Science reveals how a number of red squirrels in the United Kingdom are actively carrying different variants of the disease. Many of the animals have been found with growths on their bodies, including all over the ears, limbs, and snout.
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Closer inspection revealed that red squirrels from different regions in the UK were infected with two different variants of Leprosy, including Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis.
The former is the type of Leprosy that has been known to infect humans for thousands of years, while the latter is a variant that more commonly infects animals, but can also spread to humans if given the chance.
"It's still quite puzzling as to why some [squirrels] have one species and not the other and why this differs in different sites," observed Dr Rachael Tarlinton from the University of Nottingham, a third party who wasn’t involved with the research.
Regardless, the experts involved in the study remain firm on the hypothesis that both forms of Leprosy in these animals pose little, if any, risk to humans simply because squirrels tend to avoid people.
Still, it’s a good idea to avoid the creatures if you can, especially if they appear to have any abnormal growths that might indicate a type of Leprosy infection.
Research is ongoing to figure out how the squirrels started carrying Leprosy in the first place. Experts are interested to learn whether the squirrels contracted the disease from humans, or the other way around. It should be interesting to see where the roots of Leprosy lead us.