Friday, May 24, 2024

Medieval Squirrels May Have Spread Leprosy to Humans, Study Reveals

Recent research analyzing genetic samples from Winchester suggests that leprosy might have been transmitted between humans and red squirrels during medieval times, hinting at the possibility that the fur trade contributed to the spread of the disease.

Leprosy, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, has been recorded as one of the oldest infectious diseases in humans. While it’s now more prevalent in southeast Asia and treatable with antibiotics, medieval England saw widespread cases, affecting people from all walks of life.

Previous studies had indicated that medieval populations in England, Denmark, and Sweden shared a strain of leprosy similar to that found in present-day red squirrels in southern England. The theory suggested that the fur trade, particularly the importation of squirrel furs from Viking Scandinavia, might have contributed to the disease’s dissemination.

The recent study, led by Dr. Sarah Inskip from the University of Leicester, adds weight to this theory. Genetic analysis of samples from Winchester, an important medieval city with a leper hospital and a bustling fur trade, revealed a striking similarity between the strain of leprosy found in humans and that found in red squirrels from the same period.

Published in the journal Current Biology, the study focused on DNA extracted from samples of three individuals who lived in Winchester between 600 and 900 years ago, as well as a red squirrel whose remains were discovered in a furrier pit dating back 900 to 1,000 years. The genetic analysis showed a close match between the strains of leprosy found in both humans and squirrels.

Dr. Inskip explained that this discovery suggests a possible transmission of the disease between humans and squirrels. However, the study’s limited sample size means it cannot definitively determine whether humans initially contracted leprosy from red squirrels or vice versa.

Nevertheless, the findings raise important questions about the transmission of leprosy and its persistence. Dr. Inskip highlighted the potential role of animals in communities affected by leprosy today, suggesting that investigating animals surrounding these communities might shed light on the disease’s persistence.

The study underscores the complexity of disease transmission, suggesting that both the fur trade and close contact between humans and animals could have played significant roles in the spread of leprosy during medieval times.

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