I met Glenn Waterman, director of development at The Leprosy Mission Canada, at a dinner during the DMA Nonprofit Federation's New York Nonprofit Conference last month. He's an entertaining and quietly charming man who is genuinely passionate about his cause. At one point during pre-dinner cocktails with a few dozen other fundraisers, Glenn said something like, "There are about 5,000 cases of leprosy in the United States. Most of them are caused by armadillos."
The holding area of the trendy NYC restaurant where we were sitting was packed nearly to the point of being uncomfortable. A throng of fundraisers huddled together chatting, laughing, on somewhat silly, low-sitting chairs near the front door as harried servers maneuvered their way through the maze of bodies serving drinks and ushering people to tables. But at the point when Glenn made his armadillo proclamation (as matter-of-factly, I might add, as if he were announcing his entrée selection or wine preference) it seemed, to me at least, that all conversation faded out, the wine glasses stopped clinking and even the traffic outside silenced itself temporarily. I was riveted. Armadillos? Really?
Apparently, armadillos are the only animals besides humans that can carry leprosy. Then Glenn continued to amaze (and, frankly, somewhat sicken) me further by explaining that folks, particularly in the southern states where armadillos hang out, eat the weird, thick-skinned critters and expose themselves to the disease. Who knew? (Doing a little post-conference research, I found out that while the risk is low, humans also can be exposed to the leprosy bacteria by touching or killing armadillos or even by gardening in soil where they burrow.)
Before I start a national panic, however, I should explain that leprosy (aka Hansen's Disease) is still rare in the Unites States, is very treatable, not highly transmissible, and with early diagnosis and treatment, is neither disabling nor life-threatening. Problem is, of course, that most people in developing countries where leprosy is more prevalent don't have access to the care that can keep it from becoming devastating.