Health officials warned Florida residents to stay away from armadillos, saying the mammals may be the culprit behind the rise in leprosy cases in the state this year.
Florida usually records an average of 12 leprosy cases annually, but so far, there are already nine reported new cases in 2015. All nine cases involves patients' direct contact with armadillos, USA Today reports.
Most of the cases were detected in Brevard County, but there were also new cases in Volusia and Flagler counties. The latest case was reported in Flagler County three weeks ago.
"What's happening in Florida is not necessarily concerning, but what's interesting is those cases were all with people who were in direct contact with armadillos," said Dr. Sunil Joshi, president of the Duval County Medical Society, WJAX-TV reports.
Joshi explained that the increased incidence of Florida residents contracting leprosy from armadillos may be caused by the state's flourishing home development.
"There is a clear reason why this is happening in Florida," Joshi said. "New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos' homes in the process," he added, according to CNN.
The loss of the armadillos' natural homes is causing them to come out at daytime even though they are mainly nocturnal animals. Joshi said this increases the residents' risk of exposure to the mammals.
Armadillos, which are common in Florida, are among the few known animals that are susceptible to Mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria that cause leprosy. Humans can contract the disease when they handle or eat the meat of infected armadillos, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Leprosy is typically rare in the U.S., with just an average of 50 to 100 cases every year. And although it is possible to get the disease from armadillos, the Centers for Disease Control says it is also highly unlikely, USA Today reports.
Still, the CDC and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warned Florida residents to avoid contact with the animals. FWC advised parents to remind their children not to come near armadillos.
"Teach your kids to stay away from them. Don't try to pet them and don't try to grab them," said FWC spokeswoman Karen Parker, according to USA Today.