Along with humans, only one other creature on earth is susceptible to leprosy: the nine-banded armadillo. Leprosy thrives in cool conditions, and the armadillo's 93° F body temperature is ideal.
"That is a primary source of infection for our native Texan patients," says Dr. Terry Williams of the Houston Hansen's Disease Clinic. "Gardeners and other outdoor people can get the disease from the soil if armadillos are in the area."
In the years after his diagnosis, José Ramirez believed he might have remembered the exact moment when he picked up the disease. As a preschooler in Laredo, he accompanied an older boy down to a creek near his home, in an area where he'd seen many armadillos. En route to the creek, the older boy accidentally snapped a branch back into young José's face, cutting him under the eye. The older boy then applied a poultice of mud from the creek's bank to the wound, thus possibly transmitting the bacteria directly into Ramirez's bloodstream.
Williams says he can pinpoint the moment of transmission on occasions like that. "We had one patient who was a farmer," he says. "He had a pitchfork and he was chasing an armadillo and the pitchfork hit him, and the pitchfork probably had the bacteria on it."
Most times it's not quite that clear-cut, but if a native-born Texan gets the disease, there's usually a cuddly armadillo lurking in the background somewhere. "A lot of people tell us that they know that there are a lot of armadillos rooting around in their gardens," Williams says. "They plant things, and the next day the garden's all torn up, and they find the armadillos there."
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Houston Hansen's Disease Clinic nurse Marion Matsu says even patients who are mostly sedentary, indoor people can usually find some connection to the armadillo. "I have some patients that have never hunted or fished or done anything in the dirt," says Matsu. "I have one patient in particular — he's an executive — who said, 'The only thing I do is go golfing. And I think when I go to get my ball sometimes, there have been armadillos that I have seen.' It's very interesting."