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Leprosy passed between medieval squirrels and humans, study suggests

Study suggests #leprosy passed between humans & red squirrels in medieval England, supporting the theory that the fur trade could have played a role in the spread of the disease 


Leprosy passed between humans and red squirrels in medieval England, research suggests, supporting the theory that the fur trade could have played a role in the spread of the disease.

Leprosy is one of the oldest infectious diseases recorded in humans and is typically caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae.

While most cases now occur in south-east Asia, and can be treated with antibiotics, leprosy was common in medieval England and caused sickness and disfigurement in rich and poor people alike.

Previous research revealed that people in medieval England, Denmark and Sweden had a similar strain of leprosy to that found today in red squirrels in the south of England, with one theory being that the trading of squirrel furs, imported from Viking Scandinavia, could have been a factor in spreading the disease.

Now experts say the theory has been given a boost, with genetic analysis revealing that red squirrels in medieval England experienced a very similar strain of the disease to humans living at the time.

“This is the first time that we found an animal host of leprosy in the archaeological record, which is really exciting,” said Dr Sarah Inskip from the University of Leicester, who co-authored the research.


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