Just a few decades ago more than 10 million people worldwide suffered from leprosy. Today that figure is less than half a million, thanks partly to armadillos. Although it isn’t usually fatal, leprosy – a bacterial infection – causes unpleasant skin sores that can be permanently disfiguring. The bugs also infect nerves, leading to a loss of feeling (although it’s a myth that it makes parts of your body drop off). Unfortunately, leprosy bacteria are very difficult to study in the lab, as they grow slowly and don’t thrive in the usual nutrient broths used to feed other types of bugs. But back in the 1960s, researchers discovered that armadillos were one of the very few animals that could be infected with human leprosy. By studying the bacteria growing in armadillos, scientists have made big strides in understanding the disease and developing more effective antibiotic combinations to treat it.
Written by Kat Arney