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Red squirrels! Adorable, right? Wrong - they're riddled with leprosy

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Irmina Pasquarelli | 14 Novembre, 2016, 02:49

The red squirrels there are carrying one strain of the leprosy bacteria, M. lepromatosis. Leprosy was thought to have died out in the United Kingdom in medieval times, but these recent discoveries confirm that red squirrels carry the disease. Speaking with the BBC, one of the lead researchers, Professor Anna Meredith explained how the discovery was made: "we took samples from those squirrels, investigated further and we found that the squirrels on Brownsea Island were also infected with leprosy, and it's the human form of the disease". Some of squirrels were having visible symptoms of leprosy while others did not.

For centuries, leprosy has been a problem across the globe, even as it was said that the disease had virtually disappeared from Europe and particularly Great Britain in the 16th Century.

Researchers wanted to pinpoint the reason for the red variety of squirrel's decline in the British Isles and performed DNA tests on more than 100 animals to see if they could find any evidence as to why. Numerous red squirrels were infected with bacteria known to produce the signature lesions associated with leprosy. Meanwhile, it was also noted that such type of strain only infects another animal reservoir, the nine-banded armadillo, traced to be the similar strain that infected human leprosy cases in Florida. She said that with the presence of the leprosy bacteria on red squirrels, it shows that the disease is still in the environment even if it has been eradicated from human habitation. Of 645 armadillos collected from eight locations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and MS between 2003 and 2012, 16 percent were infected with Mycobacterium leprae. They theorize that humans may have passed the bacteria to the squirrels hundreds of years ago when interaction with the animal was much higher. It's unclear if either the squirrels infected humans in medieval times or the people infected the squirrels. This is due to competition from grey squirrels, habitat loss, and infection with squirrel poxvirus. He is a microbiologist from National Hansen's Disease Program in Baton Rouge and not part of the study.

Today, leprosy is under control but sill around 200,000 new cases of infectious disease are reported every year worldwide, most of which occur in developing countries. Only 139 total cases were reported in England and Wales between 2003 and 2012. This result was very surprising considering that it was thought only humans could suffer from the disease.

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