A middle-school student in Southern California has been confirmed to have leprosy, local health officials reported Thursday, while stressing that the rest of the school and the community are safe.
Two children at the Indian Hills Elementary School in Jurupa Valley had previously been diagnosed with the medical condition Hansen’s disease – the accurate name for leprosy, according to Riverside County health authorities. This week, results from the National Hansen’s Disease Laboratory Research Program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana showed that only one of the kids had tested positive, Fox News reports.
Leprosy is an incredibly difficult disease to contract and spread, so there is no immediate danger to the child’s classmates, health officials say. The school’s classrooms were sanitized after the diagnoses.
Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, says,
It is incredibly difficult to contract leprosy. The school was safe before this case arose and it still is.
Health and school officials will not release any more information on the child and on treatment, citing safety. Parents at the school were sent emails informing them of the diagnoses and Superintendent Elliot Duchon answered questions at the school Thursday afternoon.
There are only around 150 leprosy cases in the United States yearly, and over 95% of the population is naturally immune to infection.
The disease is more common in tropical countries, where 250,000 new cases are reported each year. But as of 2012, the number of chronic leprosy cases had reportedly dropped dramatically from 5.2 million in the 1980s to 189,000.
Like tuberculosis, leprosy remains dormant in the body from five to as long as 20 years, before finally attacking the skin and nerves. Symptoms include granulomas – inflammations that create nodules – of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes.
Leprosy has an infamous reputation as an infectious plague that has caused social stigma for its victims, and is one of the most misunderstood diseases in history. Those with leprosy were quarantined and placed in “leper colonies,” a practice that has since been shut down in all but a few countries, as leprosy was found not to be as contagious as people thought. Stories of fingers and toes falling off due to leprosy are false, too.
The disease is only passed through prolonged contact and is quite easy to treat with the right antibiotics, which can kill the bacteria within days, making it non-contagious. It can take up to a year or two for leprosy to completely clear the body. If left untreated, leprosy can cause damage to the nervous system, along with deformities and disabilities.
It is not contagious through short-term contact like handshakes, nor though sexual intercourse.
Those at the highest risk for infection are family members who are in regular contact with untreated patients, and travelers who frequent places such as India, Brazil and Angola where leprosy is more common.
In 1954, World Leprosy Day started to draw awareness to those suffering from leprosy, as well as educate the public and correct some long-held misconceptions on the disease.