Natural environmental water sources in endemic regions of northeastern Brazil are potential reservoirs of viable Mycobacterium leprae
BACKGROUND The detection of live Mycobacterium leprae in soil and animals other than humans suggests that the environment plays a role in the transmission of leprosy. OBJECTIVE The objective of this study was to investigate the presence of viable M. leprae in natural water sources used by the local population in five municipalities in the state of Ceará, northeastern Brazil. METHODS Samples were collected from 30 different sources. Viable bacilli were identified by reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of the M. leprae gyrA gene and sequencing of the PCR products. Physicochemical properties of each water source were also assessed. FINDINGS M. leprae gyrA mRNA was found in 23 (76.7%) of the water sources. No association was found between depth of the water and sample positivity, nor was there any association between the type of water used by the population and sample positivity. An association between viable M. leprae and temperature and pH was found. Georeferencing showed a relation between the residences of leprosy cases and water source containing the bacterium. MAIN CONCLUSIONS The finding of viable M. leprae in natural water sources associated with human contact suggests that the environment plays an important role in maintaining endemic leprosy in the study region.