The announcement of possible cases of leprosy identified in two children at a Southern California school is raising fears in the community. After the news broke, parents were keeping children home from school from fear that the stricken students had spread germs on the campus. School officials had the school disinfected and are trying to assuage parental fears. But, just hearing leprosy (common called Hansen’s Disease now) was in the area conjured visions of skin lesions and deformities caused by the illness throughout history.
The Indian Hills Elementary School nursing staff notified Riverside County officials that two students in the Jurupa Valley area possibly had Hansen’s Disease, which is rare in the U.S. While health officials said it will take weeks to confirm the diagnosis, the local school district informed parents of the situation, leading to the decision some parents made to keep their children home. The school has since been thoroughly disinfected.
A long-term bacterial infection, Hansen’s Disease or leprosy is one of those chronic infectious diseases that used to strike terror in communities. It is spread through close contact and believed to also be transmitted via nasal secretions, coughs, and sneezes. The Mycobacterium leprae bacteria, a rod-shaped bacillus which causes the disease, grow very slowly. It reportedly can take up to 10 years after exposure before signs and symptoms appear. It should be noted that studies show most adults are actually immune to the bacteria.
For centuries, those who caught it – lepers – were placed in Leper colonies to impose quarantines. (Hence the phrase “treated like a leper.”) The ill suffered from numbness, enlarged nerves and growths on their skin. They also often suffered deformities from secondary infections.
Nowadays, however, leprosy is curable and, if treatment is provided during the early stages, does not have to be debilitating. Since 1995, a highly effective multi-drug therapy (MDT) is available free of charge from the World Health Organization (WHO) for anyone with Hansen’s Disease. As a result, the number of cases around the world has dropped considerably.
The WHO’s MDT effort has treated more then 16 million patients with Hansen’s Disease in the past two decades. This has resulted in a dramatic decrease of ongoing infections that are reported (because of the stigma, some are not) from 5.2 million in 1985 to only 175,554 in 2014. (About 200,000 cases are reported a year around the world now, but most are treated and cured quickly.) According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 2 million people globally are permanently disabled because of leprosy.
What about the U.S.? The latest government statistics show 175 new cases of Hansen’s disease in 2014. These were mostly in Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York, and Texas. About 72 percent of the cases were in males.
The U.S. instances of the illness were also higher in the past. For instance, there were 456 in 1983. After a low of only 77 new cases in 2000, there was an uptick of almost 300 new cases in 2010.
Public health officials have yet to determine if the two possible cases identified in the Southern California elementary school are indeed leprosy. They are also trying to determine where the children may have contracted it. However, given today’s treatment success, the parental panic to the previously scary term – leprosy – should be replaced with caution and education.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Los Angeles Times: Two possible cases of leprosy reported at Riverside County elementary school
Riverside Press-Enterprise: Leprosy report causes Jurupa Valley classrooms to be sanitized
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Hansen’s disease (leprosy)
U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration: Hansen’s Disease Data & Statistics
World Health Organization: Leprosy
Photo of leprosy lesions by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (public domain)