Was A Popular Medieval Pet Responsible For Spreading Leprosy In England?

Scientists have traced genetic evidence back to the most likely source. Was A Popular Medieval Pet Responsible For Spreading Leprosy In England? Giphy

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From rabies to malaria, there have always been harmful diseases that spread from animals to humans. And now scientists think they’ve pinpointed the animal source of a major leprosy epidemic among the medieval population of Winchester, England.

A limited number of hosts

While you probably recognize the word leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease), it’s not a malady we typically encounter in our modern society. But hundreds of years ago, it was far more common as it spread far and wide while resulting in devastating symptoms including blindness and paralysis.

When looking for a root cause for an outbreak, it’s easy to narrow down the list of suspects. In addition to humans, only a relatively small number of other species can serve as a host for the disease.

One of them is the red squirrel, and a new study published in Current Biology asserts that the evidence shows this animal was the likeliest cause of the disease’s spread throughout Winchester.

Connecting the dots

At the root of the latest research is an effort by experts to recreate the building blocks of the disease as it existed around the time of the Winchester outbreak. Using 12 samples from squirrels and about twice as many human samples, the report outlined a genetic makeup that senior author Verena Schuenemann said allowed the team “to identify red squirrels as the first ancient animal host of leprosy.”

Beyond the hard data, there’s another big reason to suspect squirrels were responsible for spreading the disease to humans.

Not only were squirrels common pets among residents of medieval England, but their pelts were widely used across Europe (and in England specifically) to make garments of various types.

For the folks trying to solve a centuries-old puzzle, all the pieces seem to point to one obvious conclusion.

Chris Agee
Chris Agee May 4th, 2024
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