Scientists have discovered that red squirrels based in the UK have the disfiguring disease leprosy, an illness not seen on our shores since 1798.
Two years ago, research began by scientists in Scotland where they found that some red squirrels had deformities. After taking samples from the deceased, they discovered that they contained a strain of leprosy, thought to have disappeared in medieval times.
Other red squirrels tested on Brownsea Island, Dorset, were also found to have the strain in their DNA, with this being the same that humans contracted. Prof. Meredith from Edinburgh University remarked, “What we’re trying to tease out now is did the squirrels get leprosy from people and have just been carrying it ever since, or in fact does it work the other way round – were humans originally infected from squirrels?”
Thousands of leprosy cases are reported each year outside of the UK however the risks of it spreading from red squirrels to humans are very minimal, “We have found it is widespread all over the UK and Ireland, but we don’t want people to be alarmed. It has been around a long time and there have been no human cases for hundreds of years”, said Prof. Meredith.
Studies will continue into these new findings with new information being released when available.