For once in his life, Florida man is not the focus of a news story. Instead, Florida armadillos are in the spotlight.
Local health officials are warning Floridians to stay away from the animals after nine people were infected with leprosy after coming into contact with the leathery armored creatures.
Typically, Florida sees just 10 cases of leprosy in a year. The centuries-old bacterial infection, also known as Hansen’s disease, causes nerve damage and disfigurement and was once a considered a sentence to death or life in isolation. Thanks to antibiotics, the disease is now treatable and only rarely spreads from person to person in the U.S., typically via coughing or sneezing.
A 2011 genetic study found that armadillos naturally harbor the bacteria that causes the illness in humans, and they may be responsible for some infections, though it is far less common for leprosy to be spread that way.
But that’s what seems to be happening in Florida.
“New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos’ homes in the process,” Dr. Sunil Joshi, president-elect of the Duval County Medical Society, told CNN. “Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside.”
Armadillos aren’t native to Florida, but the cat-sized mammals are now common throughout the state, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are not the cuddliest of creatures either — they resemble a cross between a rat and a beetle and are extremely difficult to trap.
“Especially if they’re trying to get out of a cage they can spit on you,” Florida wildlife trapper Kyle Waltz told Jacksonville TV station WJAX.
The bacteria that causes leprosy can lie dormant for years, according to the CDC, and it may take up to a decade for symptoms to appear. The most of the human population isn’t susceptible to the disease, and fewer than 300 new cases were reported in the U.S. in 2010.
But the CDC reports that as many as 2 million people have been permanently disabled by the disease worldwide.