IS LEPROSY SPREADING AMONG NINE-BANDED ARMADILLOS IN THE SOUTHEASTERN UNITED STATES?
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In the United States, nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) populations are derived from two sources: (1) a continuous range expansion from Mexico led to western populations, some of which, particularly along the western Gulf Coast and west side of the Mississippi River delta, exhibit persistently high rates of leprosy infection, and (2) a small group of animals released from captivity in Florida gave rise to eastern populations that were all considered leprosy free. Given that western and eastern populations have now merged, an important question becomes, to what extent is leprosy spreading into formerly uninfected populations? To answer this question, we sampled 500 animals from populations in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Analyses of nuclear microsatellite DNA markers confirmed the historic link between source populations from Texas and Florida, but did not permit resolution of the extent to which these intermediate populations represented eastern versus western gene pools. Prevalence of leprosy was determined by screening blood samples for the presence of antibodies against Mycobacterium leprae and via polymerase chain reaction amplification of armadillo tissues to detect M. leprae DNA. The proportion of infected individuals within each population varied from 0% to 10%. Although rare, a number of positive individuals were identified in eastern sites previously considered uninfected. This indicates leprosy may be spreading eastward and calls into question hypotheses proposing leprosy infection is confined because of ecologic constraints to areas west of the Mississippi River.
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