Armadillos, leprosy, and media hype

This is a disturbing headline, but not for the reason you think:

armadillo leprosy headline

If you can’t read it, the text is “Armadillos cause spike in leprosy cases in Florida.”

The confluence of two unusual words (“armadillo” and “leprosy”) makes you sit up and take notice (even if the other noun, “Florida,” somehow makes it seem less unexpected.)

So, just how bad is this leprosy epidemic?

Florida typically sees two to 12 cases of leprosy a year, but so far there have been nine cases in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Okay, let’s unpack that for a moment.

  • Usual range is between two and 12.
  • We have had nine in the first seven months of the year.
  • TREND!

Even if that extrapolates up to a whopping 17 people, we still don’t know what the mean is, nor what would constitute a standard deviation. Also, we don’t have data on where these are occurring — for instance, if a family of five all touched an armadillo, that would be a single incident with five cases, and not indicative of some zombie-inducing plague of armadillae.

How to Stay Safe

But hey, let’s read a little bit further, because we don’t want to fall victim to these lethal predators (emphasis mine):

Some armadillos, placental mammals with leathery armor, are naturally infected with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Armadillos are one of the only known animals to carry leprosy, an age-old disease that causes skin and nerve damage.

The CDC says it is possible to contract leprosy through contact with armadillos, but it is usually unlikely.

Wait. The CDC says this is unlikely? How is it spread, then?

[Dr. Sunil] Joshi said leprosy, much like tuberculosis, is spread through coughing and sneezing, but 95% of the human population is immune to the disease.

Coughing and sneezing. So I am more likely to catch it from a human than an armadillo. (And this qualifies as actual actionable information buried in this story, as so many of us were brought up to believe that leprosy was spread through skin-to-skin contact.)

But it is good to know that it is out there, and we need to be vigilant:

Also, the disease can lie dormant for months or years before the first signs of infection appear, Joshi said. Typically the first signs are skin lesions, and symptoms can progress to neurological problems such as psychosis and seizures.

What the hell? So maybe some of these people this year contracted it last year? This makes so little sense…

“There is a clear reason why this is happening in Florida,” Joshi said. “New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos’ homes in the process. Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside.”

Oh, so now it’s all those homes we are building. I am certain that someone somewhere will plot a graph showing a strong correlation between new home construction in Florida and Florida leprosy cases. (Note: previous sentence will be edited in the future once the World Wide Web Consortium settles on a standard Sarcasm Font.)

So what are we to do?!?

Experts are urging Floridians to use caution and not touch the small, cat-sized creatures.

Or, maybe if those experts had read the previous paragraphs, they ought to do the following:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Don’t let people cough and sneeze on you
  • Be aware of new home construction in your area, if you live in Florida

Doubling Down on teh Dumb

I can’t stress enough how poor this article is. Poor on research. Poor in fact. Poor in context. Poor in math. And even poor in layout. I share another screen capture, which shows the “pull out” box with the important points in bullets!

armadillo leprosy bullets 1

I am glad they went to that trouble. Because some people might not have been able to divine those FAST FACTS! without the assistance. Unless, you know, they read the first four paragraphs of the story:

armadillo leprosy bullets 2

Manufactured Bite

This is all eerily reminiscent of the Summer of the Shark, back in 2001. Reporters and outlets were falling all over themselves to report on the rash of shark attacks, and how dangerous beaches had become. Many of these attacks were accompanied by shocking! video! from the shoreline, where the brave and the heroic attempted to help one of the hapless victims of these growing schools of dangerous and aggressive sharks.

Maybe it was offshore drilling that was bringing the sharks closer to land? Maybe it was garbage? Might even be climate change global warming, forcing the sharks to feed closer to the coast.

In reality, there were fewer shark attacks in 2001 than there were in 2000. And the last stories about the Summer of the Shark petered out on September 10, 2001.

And in today’s reality:

  • You are more likely to be misled by a clickbait headline than contract leprosy.
  • You are more likely to be misled by a clickbait headline than meet an armadillo.
  • You are more likely to be misled by a clickbait headline than be attacked by a shark.
  • You are more likely to be misled by a clickbait headline than be attacked by a terrorist.
  • You are more likely to be misled by a clickbait headline than have a shark attack you, and remove the leprous limb that got diseased after being sneezed upon by a pissed-off homeless armadillo.
Leprosy-inducing armadillo, behind bars where he belongs.

Leprosy-inducing armadillo, behind bars where he belongs.

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