Scientists believe that leprosy was spread by red squirrels

It is known that leprosy is one of the oldest diseases that amazes people. But its origin is unknown. Scientists continue to find new information about leprosy, and it sheds light on the history of the oldest disease. Today we can say that the disease could have originated in Western Europe, and its main distributors could be proteins.


Leprosy, it’s Hansen’s disease, affects the nerves, skin, eyes and nose. The most common disease was from the 12th to the 16th century, but even today 200 thousand new cases of infection are reported annually. The disease is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. The origin of this bacterium remains a mystery, but the results of a study published in the PLOS Pathogens allow making some assumptions.

A popular view was the opinion of the occurrence of the disease in East Africa or the Middle East and the spread of migration and trade routes. According to a new study, the focus of the disease could be medieval Europe. There is no evidence, but the authors found 10 different strains of leprosy in Western Europe.

The cemetery of Odense St. Jorgen in Denmark existed from 1270 to 1560. Mostly it fell under the sights of researchers from various European institutions. In total, scientists analyzed the remains of 90 people buried in Europe from the 400’s to the 1400’s. Each of the analyzed remains showed signs of skeletal deformation that spoke of leprosy.

As a result of work with these remains, 10 genomes of Mycobacterium leprae bacteria were identified, extracted and reconstructed. Some of them were already known to science, but earlier in Europe only two strains were found. It is impossible to say with certainty that Europe has become a hotbed of leprosy, but such a variety of found genomes hints at this.

In addition, the oldest of the leprosy strains found in the remains of a man who lived in England between 415 and 545 AD is very similar to the strain that is found in modern red squirrels. They are carriers of the strain, which ceased to affect Europeans more than 700 years ago. This gives rise to the hypothesis that proteins and the trade in their fur were a factor in the spread of leprosy in medieval Europe.

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