Red squirrels struck by medieval strain of leprosy

An international team of researchers led by Professor Anna Meredith, Chair of Zoological and Conservation Medicine at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Midlothian, have identified two species of bacteria linked to outbreaks of leprosy in UK red squirrels.

DNA samples from red squirrels in England, Scotland and Ireland revealed evidence of infection with Mycobacterium lepromatosis and Mycobacterium leprae, both of which cause leprosy in humans, although not all of the squirrels showed signs of the disease. Interestingly, all 25 samples taken from red squirrels living on Brownsea Island, off England’s south coast, were infected with a strain of bacteria closely related to one isolated from the skeleton of a plague victim buried in nearby Winchester 730 years ago, suggesting that the bacteria may have been infecting red squirrels in the area since medieval times.

The authors stress that the risk of humans catching the disease from red squirrels is very low, but their findings suggest that squirrels and possibly other mammals could be a reservoir for the leprosy-causing bacteria, thwarting efforts to eradicate the disease around the world.

The above blog is an abbreviated version of an article published by the Midlothian Advertiser 16/02/17, written by Nicola Stock, Public Engagement Officer, Easter Bush Campus

Author: Juliet Ridgway-Tait

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