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