Don't panic plea, as red squirrels found to harbour leprosy virus
Red squirrels in the UK carry strains of leprosy similar to those that have caused disability and disfigurement to humans for centuries, a study has shown.
Experts stress the chances of catching the disease from a squirrel are extremely low and have urged people living close to the animals not to panic.
Scientists tested DNA samples from 25 red squirrels on Brownsea Island, Dorset, and found that every one was infected with the leprosy bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. The strain was strikingly similar to that recovered from the skeleton of a leprosy victim buried 730 years ago in Winchester - just 43 miles away.
Other red squirrels from Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Wight were carrying another kind of leprosy bacteria, Mycobacterium lepromatosis.
This strain was closely related to a virulent form of human leprosy endemic in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Brownsea Island, in Poole harbour, is a red squirrel haven, with about 250 of the endangered rodents.
The new study suggests the island's red squirrels have been affected by leprosy for decades and perhaps centuries.