British red squirrels serve as leprosy reservoir | Science News

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British red squirrels serve as leprosy reservoir

Bacteria responsible for Hansen’s disease may have been lurking in rodents for centuries

2:07pm, November 10, 2016
red squirrel

SERIOUS SIGNS  Red squirrels across the British Isles have tested positive for the bacteria that cause leprosy. This one shows signs of the disfiguring disease on its ear and muzzle. 

Leprosy has been hiding out in red squirrels in Great Britain and Ireland, though the painful and disfiguring disease has rarely been transmitted between humans there since the Middle Ages.

The endangered bushy-tailed rodents (Sciurus vulgaris) have tested positive for leprosy-causing bacteria in several locations around the British Isles, researchers report November 11 in Science.

“It goes to show that once a disease has become extinct in humans, it could still exist in the environment if there was a suitable reservoir,” says study coauthor Stewart Cole, director of the Global Health Institute at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. In this case, squirrels seem to be ideal incubators for leprosy bacteria.

Until recently, leprosy, clinically known as Hansen’s disease, was thought to be transmitted only between humans. But in 2011, a team

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