Co–infection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium leprae in human archaeological samples: a possible explanation for the historical decline of leprosy

Helen D. Donoghue, Antónia Marcsik, Carney Matheson, Kim Vernon, Emilia Nuorala, Joseph E. Molto, Charles L. Greenblatt, Mark Spigelman

Abstract

Both leprosy and tuberculosis were prevalent in Europe during the first millennium but thereafter leprosy declined. It is not known why this occurred, but one suggestion is that cross–immunity protected tuberculosis patients from leprosy. To investigate any relationship between the two diseases, selected archaeological samples, dating from the Roman period to the thirteenth century, were examined for both Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA, using PCR. The work was carried out and verified in geographically separate and independent laboratories. Several specimens with palaeopathological signs of leprosy were found to contain DNA from both pathogens, indicating that these diseases coexisted in the past. We suggest that the immunological changes found in multi–bacillary leprosy, in association with the socio–economic impact on those suffering from the disease, led to increased mortality from tuberculosis and therefore to the historical decline in leprosy.

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