What threat does Leprosy pose to our native red squirrels?
Recent media headlines that ‘Leprosy has been found in red squirrels across the British Isles’ have led to the general public wondering if this is another nail in the coffin of this native species. However, although widespread, the infection is not a major factor in red squirrel declines. Thousands of animals perish as a result of being hit by road traffic, killed by predators and dying as a result of starvation and viral infections such as adenovirus and squirrelpox. Leprosy is not a significant contributory fact to annual mortality. It is a high profile story given the fact that a few centuries ago the condition afflicted human populations in the British Isles and obviously were it to pose a risk to us, then we would want to know about it!
So what is the risk to us if we have contact with red squirrels?
Scientists suggest that it is in fact tiny, especially as long as those handling red squirrels (during research studies or when recovering carcasses) wear gloves and minimise direct skin contact.
The Brownsea island red squirrel population has been the subject of recent research with regards to this particular headline. A study there has indicated that the leprosy regularly found in animals on the island is a different strain from what is found elsewhere in the British Isles. The significance the disease might play in population dynamics remains unclear but the fact that the bacterial infection is present in a rodent is interesting from a global perspective. The presence of animal host reservoirs of infections that can affect human populations can act to limit parallel attempts to rid humanity of such infections, and consequently the leprosy in UK red squirrel populations offers a useful scientific case study.
Anything further that is researched on this subject will of course be included in due course, so keep posted for more on it!