Squirrels may have given medieval Britons leprosy

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Uncovering the Surprising Link Between Leprosy and Medieval Squirrels

Researchers have made a startling discovery – humans may have contracted leprosy from squirrels during the Middle Ages. By studying human and red squirrel remains from archaeological sites in Winchester, southern England, they found that the two shared closely related strains of the bacteria that causes this chronic, infectious disease.

Leprosy, which attacks the skin, nerves, and mucous membranes, was once thought to be solely a human disease. However, the researchers’ findings challenge this long-held belief. “The finding of leprosy in modern squirrels was surprising, and then it’s incredible that we found it in the medieval period,” said study co-author Dr. Sarah Inskip from the University of Leicester. “It really goes against the narrative that it was a human disease specifically.”

Leprosy is still endemic in many parts of the world, with over 200,000 new cases reported annually. While armadillos are known to carry the disease and transmit it to humans, the researchers’ discovery marks the first time a medieval animal has been identified as a host for leprosy.

The shared strain of the bacteria between humans and squirrels suggests that the disease was circulating between people and animals in the Middle Ages in a way that had not been detected before. During this time, squirrel fur was a popular lining for clothing, and some people even kept squirrels as pets, particularly among women.

The researchers studied 25 human and 12 squirrel samples, with the human remains coming from a Winchester leprosarium (a hospital for people with leprosy) and the squirrel remains from a nearby pit used by furriers. Previous studies have also found that modern red squirrels in Scotland and Brownsea Island off the coast of southern England carry leprosy.

While the probability of humans contracting leprosy from squirrels is considered very low, and there have been no reported cases of transmission, the researchers believe this discovery highlights the need to further investigate the role animals may have played in the spread and transmission of this ancient disease.

“The history of leprosy is far more complex than previously thought,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Verena Sch√ľnemann from the University of Basel in Switzerland. “There has been no consideration of the role that animals might have played in the transmission and spread of the disease in the past, and as such, our understanding of leprosy’s history is incomplete until these hosts are considered.”

Dr. Stephen Walker, an Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, echoed this sentiment, stating, “There’s no doubt that in certain circumstances animals do appear to play a role, but the size of that role in global terms of leprosy hasn’t been delineated and I would agree, does need more work.”

This groundbreaking research highlights the need for a more comprehensive understanding of leprosy’s history and transmission, as we strive to reduce the impact of this ancient disease worldwide.

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