Dangerous act of hunting and consuming armadillo meat

Publicação: 14 de April de 2022

In Brazil, armadillo hunting is a risk activity for infections, but the danger is also in the handling and consumption of meat

The cycle of infection between armadillos and humans can occur by contact with blood, by aerosol or from contaminated soil

In 2017, the case of three people from the same family living in Serra Talhada, Sertão do Pajeú (PE), diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis triggered an alert for this emerging disease. It was the first time the disease was reported in the state. The disease had been diagnosed mainly in Piauí and Ceará, with few cases in Maranhão and rare in Bahia. In Piauí, the lethality of the disease was approximately 8%. The greatest difficulty in diagnosing the infection is not considering it, since coccidioidomycosis can be easily confused with other diseases. Many cases can be misdiagnosed as nonspecific pneumonia (the most acute cases) or tuberculosis (cases with more delayed symptoms) and others are certainly underdiagnosed, since the disease is little known by physicians and biochemists in Brazil and the Northeast.

But after all, what does systemic mycoses such as coccidioidomycosis and paracoccidioidomycosis have to do with armadillos? Dr. Lisandra Damasceno, a professor at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), explains that coccidioidomycosis, caused by Coccidioides spp., affects people who often hunt armadillo, since arthroconids, filamentous structures of the fungus, found in the soil can be inhaled during this practice. “The individual when removing the soil to find the animal, disperses dust particles along with the fungus, and is exposed to the inhalation of these particles, leading to contamination, she highlights.

In Brazil, in more than 90% of cases, the disease has been diagnosed in individuals who have hunted armadillos (Dasypus sp) with exposure to dust from the habitat of these animals (burrows). Hunting dogs also get sick frequently. The lung is the entry point of the fungus, and in cases with more expressive symptoms, fever, dry cough and chest pain are the most common manifestations. Hypersensitivity such as arthralgia and erythema nodosum or multiform skin lesions are also common. The fungus can spread to virtually any organ, especially skin, bones, joints and meninges.

“Paracoccidioidomycosis, caused by Paracoccidioides spp., also affects people who handle the soil, but this fungus has been more frequently observed in the South and Southeast regions, and in cities in the North. In the Northeast, few cases have been observed, especially in mountainous regions,” says Dr. Damasceno. Also according to her, also in this mycosis, the armadillo harbors the fungus (reservoir), but does not transmit the fungus through the ingestion of its meat by humans. “This fungus when inhaled can cause lung disease mainly in adults. Farmers and planters of coffee or sugarcane are the individuals most likely to become ill with Paracoccidioidomycosis,” adds Dr. Damasceno.

The diagnosis of these two mycoses is made through the identification and isolation of the fungus in respiratory secretions, or through serology, a test that detects antibodies in the blood of individuals who have had contact with the fungus. Dr. Damascene is categorical in stating that to date, there is no study that proves that the ingestion of armadillo meat leads to the illness of individuals due to diseases caused by fungi. “There is no transmission of pulmonary mycoses from animals to man,” she emphasizes.

Risk in the consumption and handling of meat

In Brazil, some regional menus include meats that go beyond traditional beef, chicken and pork. In many regions, mainly rural and inland, the consumption of bushmeat is common, with armadillo being one of the most sought-after species. Studies show that most of the emerging infectious diseases are represented by pathogens that cause zoonoses and, of these, 71.8% originate from wild animals. The danger to the population is that armadillo can be a reservoir for various microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa.

In 2018, a study published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases entitled Evidence of zoonotic leprosy in Pará, Brazilian Amazon, and risks associated with human contact or consumption of armadillos  warned that more than half of the wild armadillos that inhabit the Brazilian Amazon tested were carriers of the bacteria that causes leprosy,  Mycobacterium leprae. According to scientists John Spencer, Colorado State University (USA), and Moises Silva, Federal University of Pará (UFPA), with whom the communication advisory of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) talked at the time, people in Brazil, particularly in rural areas, hunt and kill armadillos as a food source. In the small town of Belterra, in western Pará, the research with 146 residents showed that about 65% of the population had some contact with armadillos, through hunting, manipulation for preparation and subsequent ingestion of meat. The researcher revealed that initially there were doubts whether exposure to armadillos could affect people living in a hyperendemic area, such as the state of Pará, since there is so much exposure to M. Leprae among humans, and more than 60% of the population had elevated levels of antibodies against the PGL-I antigen of M. Leprae. “But when we saw a much higher antibody titer in the group that ate armadillos, the majority, and that there was almost twice as much risk of having the disease due to this behavior, this was strong evidence that leprosy can be a zoonotic disease spread by armadillos to humans, as well as in the southern United States,” he added. Recall the interview  conducted in 2018.

According to Dr. Damasceno, this was the only study that found the bacteria that causes leprosy present in viscera such as the liver and spleen, among the animals captured in this region of Pará. “Subsequently, the researchers evaluated some residents of the same region and found a high frequency of people who had antibodies in the blood for the same bacterium, suggesting a possible zoonotic transmission, especially during hunting, handling and preparation (cleaning of meat) of the animal for consumption,” she points out. The authors also pointed out that the transmission of the bacteria by the ingestion of meat when cooked is unlikely, since cooking would be a factor that would lead to the death of the bacteria,” she points out. However, the teacher notes that in that region there is consumption of ceviche, a dish made with raw armadillo meat (with viscera such as the liver that have a high load of leprosy bacteria), which could be related to the greater number of people with antibodies to the bacterium.

Trypanosoma cruzi infection is another problem for those who consume or handle meat from wild animals. Dr. André Roque, from the Trypanosomatids Biology Laboratory of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute (IOC/Fiocruz), clarifies that T. cruzi is a multi-host parasite capable of infecting hundreds of species of mammals, including humans. “The disease in these animals is called American Trypanosomiasis, while in humans it is known as Chagas disease. Once inside the host, the T. cruzi presents in two different ways: amastigote, intracellular form present in the tissues and that can be in any nucleated cell, for example, in the musculature; and the blood trypomastigote. The first form does not present a cyst or any other form of resistance, that is, through any cooking process, however simple it may be, it is possible to eliminate it,” details the teacher.

But the great danger, according to the researcher, occurs in the manipulation of the animal due to the blood trypomastigote, when the person has fresh blood on their hands and there is contact with oral, nasal or ocular mucous membranes, or with any injury there may be on the hands. “In addition, the lack of care with utensils is also a problem, since the person can use the same knife that cut the hunt with a vegetable or other food that will be eaten raw,” warns the teacher. There is a risk even when hygiene is not carried out properly, for example, when placing raw foods that can be eaten in the place where the meat was cut. “This is how the infectious form of the blood forms of trypomastigote is transported. This is an important point for transmission, where there is a risk of contamination,” stresses Dr. Roque.

Considering that the consumption of game meat is a common habit of rural populations in Brazil, the transmission of the parasite by this route is a possibility that needs to be considered. For those who consume game meat, the alert is that they follow hygiene and care measures during the handling of the meat. Dr. Roque also recalls that armadillos are also hosts of Leishmania species, which cause Leishmaniasis. Transmission occurs when the phlebotomine (sand fly) feeds on an infected animal and subsequently bites humans in a new blood feed.

Finally, Dr. Damasceno recalls that the hunting of wild animals is an environmental crime, and the consumption of meat from these animals is not appropriate, because due to the variety of microorganisms that the armadillo harbors, infections of oral transmission can occur, especially acute gastroenteritis caused by bacteria.