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Evidence of zoonotic leprosy in Pará, Brazilian Amazon, and risks associated with human contact or consumption of armadillos




da Silva, Moises B., author
Portela, Juliana M., author
Li, Wei, author
Jackson, Mary, author
Gonzalez-Juarrero, Mercedes, author
Hidalgo, Andrea Sánchez, author
Belisle, John T., author
Bouth, Raquel C., author
Gobbo, Angélica R., author
Barreto, Josafá G., author

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Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae) is a human pathogen and the causative agent for leprosy, a chronic disease characterized by lesions of the skin and peripheral nerve damage. Zoonotic transmission of M. leprae to humans by nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) has been shown to occur in the southern United States, mainly in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Nine-banded armadillos are also common in South America, and residents living in some areas in Brazil hunt and kill armadillos as a dietary source of protein. This study examines the extent of M. leprae infection in wild armadillos and whether these New World mammals may be a natural reservoir for leprosy transmission in Brazil, similar to the situation in the southern states of the U.S. The presence of the M. leprae-specific repetitive sequence RLEP was detected by PCR amplification in purified DNA extracted from armadillo spleen and liver tissue samples. A positive RLEP signal was confirmed in 62% of the armadillos (10/16), indicating high rates of infection with M. leprae. Immunohistochemistry of sections of infected armadillo spleens revealed mycobacterial DNA and cell wall constituents in situ detected by SYBR Gold and auramine/rhodamine staining techniques, respectively. The M. leprae-specific antigen, phenolic glycolipid I (PGL-I) was detected in spleen sections using a rabbit polyclonal antibody specific for PGL-I. Anti-PGL-I titers were assessed by ELISA in sera from 146 inhabitants of Belterra, a hyperendemic city located in western Pará state in Brazil. A positive anti-PGL-I titer is a known biomarker for M. leprae infection in both humans and armadillos. Individuals who consumed armadillo meat most frequently (more than once per month) showed a significantly higher anti-PGL-I titer than those who did not eat or ate less frequently than once per month. Armadillos infected with M. leprae represent a potential environmental reservoir. Consequently, people who hunt, kill, or process or eat armadillo meat are at a higher risk for infection with M. leprae from these animals.


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Mycobacterium leprae
acid-fast stain
hematoxylin staining


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