Jurupa Valley, California — Testing has confirmed that at least one child in Southern California has leprosy.
The name leprosy comes from a Latin word meaning “scaly,” which describes the victim’s skin. The disease causes disfiguring sores, and if left untreated, it can result in severe nerve damage, deformity, and disability. Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease, and it spreads through contact with infected persons.
At Southern California’s Indian Hills Elementary School in Jurupa Valley on September 2, the nursing staff noticed suspicious symptoms (which have not yet been identified in the press) in two children and notified Riverside County health officials. Readily observable leprosy symptoms include lesions, discolored skin, and nosebleeds.
Parents of children in the Jurupa Unified School District received a letter from school officials informing them about the unconfirmed leprosy cases. School Superintendent Elliott Duchon insisted that classrooms had been decontaminated and that the students in question were not in school.
“There is not a risk at this time,”
Nevertheless, parents began to panic, with some refusing to allow their kids to attend school. On the Tuesday after the letter was sent out, 93 students were absent.
Barbara Cole, director for disease control for the Riverside County Department of Public Health, argued for caution.
“We have to keep stressing it’s not confirmed,” she said. “We’re just at the beginning of the investigation.”
However, on September 20 public officials announced results from the National Hansen’s Disease Laboratory Research Program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana: one of the children had tested positive and did, indeed, have leprosy.
Officials continue to insist that the school and the community are safe. Dr. Cameron Kaiser, public health officer for Riverside County, said, “It is incredibly difficult to contract leprosy.” He continued, “The school was safe before this case arose, and it still is.”
Hansen’s disease has a reputation as an extremely infectious condition that causes patients to lose not only skin but body parts such as fingers. In Medieval times, those suffering from leprosy were shunned, forced to wear bells to warn others of their approach, expelled from communities, and isolated in remote areas called leper colonies.
Much of the lore surrounding Hansen’s disease is false, however. It is, in fact, not easily transmittable, and contagious occurs only after close and repeated contact. A patient’s body parts don’t fall off, although fingers and toes can become shortened. And it is fairly easily cured via a multi-drug therapy including readily available antibiotics.
Riverside County officials in have not revealed the identity of the two children or how the infected child contracted the disease. It is not unknown whether the two are siblings, but it is rumored that they live in the same home.
Because leprosy is fairly widespread in parts of the world such as India, it is suspected that the infected child may have traveled to and contracted Hansen’s disease in one of these “tropical hot spots” where some 250,000 new infections are reported each year.
Meanwhile school attendance is reportedly “back to normal” at the school, but parents remain concerned. “It’s just very, very scary,” said Luis Estrada, a parent of two boys who attend the school. “I’m just thinking, is it going to be secure to bring my kids here again?“