Armadillos: A Modern Answer to a Medieval Question

Lepers in ancient times were ostracized. There was no true treatment or cure available.
Lepers in ancient times were ostracized. There was no true treatment or cure available.

Picture a calm, medieval market place. Peasants walk about in their simple, homespun clothes, pulling farm animals and carrying produce. The local nobility prance around on high horses in colorful outfits, perusing the selection of items around them.  A traveling bard strums his mandolin and tells a tale. Then, a distant bell sounds, and the atmosphere changes immediately. As the ringing gets closer, people flee the streets for the safety of shops, barring the doors behind them. They peer out of their windows in fear as several lepers walk down the street, ringing their telltale bells as they go.

In ancient times, people who suffered from leprosy were believed by some to be sinners punished by God. Others believed that lepers were souls in purgatory, waiting to move on to the afterlife. Whatever the case, lepers were seen as vile and loathsome beings and were feared and shunned in almost all cases. Almost no treatment was available apart from those given by a handful of ancient hospitals, and even then, the “cures” did next to nothing (“History of Leprosy,” n.d.).

Of course, our knowledge of leprosy has increased a great deal since the Dark Ages.

A 24-year-old suffering from Leprosy, circa 1886. By Pierre Arents [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A 24-year-old suffering from Leprosy, circa 1886. By Pierre Arents [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leprosy, also known as Hansen ’s disease, is a chronic disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis, two bacteria similar to the one that causes tuberculosis (TB). These bacteria attack the peripheral nerves and mucus membranes of the upper respiratory tract, leading to the infamous skin lesions that plague the sufferers of leprosy. Left untreated, leprosy can cause permanent damage to the nerves, skin, limbs, and eyes; it can also weaken the body’s immune system and expose the sufferer to additional secondary infection (Couzin, 2011).

In the US, leprosy seems to be a mere legend of the past- a horrible pox that was once feared by all. But for people like BB Blanchard, a 15-year-old from Baton Rouge, LA, it’s a very real and present threat. “I just broke down and cried [when I found out],” said BB. Her reaction of shock and disbelief is a common one, as most people know of leprosy only as a disease from ancient times (Tresniowski, 2008).

Thankfully for BB, diagnosing and curing leprosy is fairly easy in the modern world; this was not, however, the case for much of history. By the early 20th century, doctors had begun treating those afflicted with oil from the chaulmoogra nut, but this was a painful and generally ineffective treatment measure (“History of Leprosy,” n.d.).

Had BB lived 60 or 70 years ago, her hopes for a cure would have been slim to none. M. leprae and M. lepromatosis are obligate pathogens, meaning they lack the genes for independent growth and thus cannot be cultured in a laboratory. This genetic trait made researching a cure very challenging, as scientists had no samples to study besides those collected from people suffering from leprosy. This led to a large stagnation in the development of a cure.

There are several reasons why scientists suspect that M. leprae can grow well and infect armadillos, most notably because of their low body temperatures. Armadillos have an average body temperature of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than eight degrees lower than that of humans. Since the bacterium that cause leprosy tend to accumulate in the extremities of the human body (fingers, ears, etc.), scientists suspected that the bacteria were able to thrive only in these lower temperatures (Truman, 2011).In the late 1960’s Eleanor E. Storrs made arguably the most important scientific discovery relating to leprosy when she discovered that Dasypus novemcinctus, commonly known as the Nine Banded Armadillo, was susceptible to leprosy. This provided the desperately needed tissue samples that were required to develop cures and detection methods for leprosy (“Armadillos and Their Role in Treating Leprosy,” n.d.).

With this new source of M. leprae, research into treatment and preventative medicine for leprosy took a great leap forward. Twenty years after the discovery of the armadillo’s usefulness, an effective multi-drug treatment (MDT) regimen was implemented and found to be effective on the island of Malta. This regimen consisted of the previously used Dapsone pills, rifampicin, and clofazimine, and was endorsed by the World Health Organization in 1981 as the best method for the  treatment of leprosy. This treatment method is the most effective one to date (“Hansen’s Disease Treatment,” n.d.).

The Nine-Banded Armadillo. Image courtesy of Chris Persaud, FAU.
The Nine-Banded Armadillo. Image courtesy of Chris Persaud, FAU.

The next step towards the ultimate eradication of leprosy is a highly effective vaccine. Unfortunately, no such fully effective vaccine has been found yet, although research is ongoing. Due to the similarities between the bacteria that cause TB and leprosy, there has been significant research into utilizing TB vaccines for leprosy, but the evidence so far is inconclusive as to the effectiveness of these vaccines.

Great strides have been made towards the eradication of leprosy thanks to the Nine Banded Armadillo. These curious mammals have transformed an age-old nightmare into a potentially curable disease and have given sufferers like BB a ray of hope.


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Works Cited