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Warning: Red squirrels could be spreading human leprosy in the UK


(NaturalNews) People who are concerned about their health often focus on preventing modern illnesses like cancer, but one disease that few people give much thought to these days is leprosy. However, this disease, which was once eliminated as a public health problem, appears to be making a comeback thanks to an unlikely ally: the humble red squirrel.

Britons are being warned to stay away from these critters to avoid contracting the disease. One strain in particular shows some concerning similarities to the strain that caused outbreaks of leprosy in medieval Europe, and it's currently plaguing red squirrels on the island of Brownsea in the UK, which is situated off the coast of Dorset. It has also been found in red squirrels living in other areas of England as well as in Ireland and Scotland.

Some infected squirrels show no outward signs of leprosy

After testing samples from 25 of the animals, researchers discovered that all of them had been infected with the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria. Some were suffering from hair loss and swelling, while others carried the disease despite not showing any signs of it. Even more disturbingly, it was discovered that they were not merely carrying an animal version as previously thought; instead, they were carrying human leprosy.

University of Edinburgh Royal School of Veterinary Studies professor, Anna Meredith, told the Indepdent that 95 percent of people are unable to contract leprosy, and the bacteria that causes it cannot survive outside of the body.

Even though the risk to humans is not very great, an outbreak could still occur if precautions are not taken. People are being advised to avoid coming into contact with the squirrels, and to wash their hands before eating. Leprosy is mainly spread through coughing and sneezing.

The scientists say that their bacteria samples indicate that leprosy could have been affecting Brownsea's red squirrels for centuries. The red squirrel is already an endangered species, and there are worries that the spread of the disease could threaten their existence. There are fewer than 140,000 of the rodents remaining in the UK, and scientists predict that they could disappear from Britain entirely within the next decade. They are also being threatened by squirrel pox carried by gray squirrels and exacerbated by habitat loss.

Early detection vital in curing leprosy

According to the World Health Organization, the disease's incubation period is around five years, and it could take as many as 20 years for symptoms to appear. Leprosy can be cured with medicine, but getting early treatment is vital for preventing disability and deformities. When left untreated, leprosy can lead to permanent damage to the nerves, skin, eyes and limbs.

Even though the disease's prevalence rate dropped by 99 percent in the years from 1983 to 2014, a total of 211,973 new cases of leprosy were reported around the world in 2015 alone. While people who live near the affected squirrels should not panic, they do need to be vigilant. Although some infected squirrels have lesions on their snouts or ears, others show no signs of the disease, so all should be treated with caution.

The researchers are calling for further studies on red squirrels and other rodent populations in other parts of the world to determine if animals could serve as a reservoir for leprosy and contribute to its spread among humans.

Could leprosy become the next Zika virus? With new disease epidemics making headlines all the time, it's important for people to keep their defenses up. This means exercising regularly and eating a clean, healthy diet that contains plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

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