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Leprosy found in California elementary school student

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LOS ANGELES » A case of leprosy, extremely rare in the United States, has been diagnosed in a Southern California elementary school student, sending health officials scrambling to reassure parents and the public that the disease is hard to transmit and easy to treat.

Two children from Indian Hills Elementary School in Jurupa Valley had initially been diagnosed by a local doctor with the condition known medically as Hansen’s disease, Riverside County health officials said Thursday. But this week they received results from the National Hansen’s Disease Laboratory Research Program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and they showed that only one of the children had tested positive.

Emails were sent to parents at the elementary school, where classrooms had been sanitized since the initial diagnosis, emphasizing how hard it is to contract leprosy and that there is no danger to the child’s classmates.

“It is incredibly difficult to contract leprosy,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer. “The school was safe before this case arose and it still is.”

The U.S. sees only about 150 leprosy cases occur each year, and over 95 percent of the population is naturally immune to it.

Despite its reputation as an incredibly infectious plague that makes sufferers shed body parts, the disease can only be passed through prolonged contact, and is fairly easily treated with antibiotics.

It is not spread through short-term contact like handshakes or even sexual intercourse.

Those most at risk are family members who are in constant contact with an untreated person, and is usually contracted by people who have traveled to places like India, Brazil and Angola where it’s more common.

County health officials would say only that the child got the disease through prolonged contact with another person who is not in the county.

They would say nothing about the identity of either child who was tested.

“The only way to protect the two students is for nobody to know who they are,” district Superintendent Elliott Duchon told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

Duchon was at the school on Thursday afternoon to answer questions from concerned parents.

Leprosy remains a problem in tropical hot spots of the world with some 250,000 new infections reported each year. Similar to tuberculosis, it can stay dormant for years before attacking the skin and nerves.

The disease has long been misunderstood, with false stories of fingers and toes falling off adding to the stigma. Fear led some countries to quarantine people.

Antibiotics typically kill the bacteria within days and make it non-contagious. It usually takes a year or two to fully clear the germ from the body.

If left untreated, it can cause severe nerve damage, deformity and disability.

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  • “County health officials would say only that the child got the disease through prolonged contact with another person who is not in the county.
    The only way to protect the two students is for nobody to know who they are,” district Superintendent Elliott Duchon told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.”

    That really makes me feel better…bet a lot of parents there feel that way. (gag)

    • Students in the same classes know who they are. Although absences is no sure way, sanitizing classrooms certainly would be strange in tight budget strained schools. Schoolyard gossip certainly can spread the incident.

    • They are technically “legal” alien workers. Nothing illegal about how they are here. But you are correct. There is no vetting done by owners/Captains of the boats. The vessels rendezvous out at sea with other boats carrying crew from foreign countries. The new re are immediately put to work as the old crew are taken away and back to foreign countries. Now the crew interact with one another in very close quarter living conditions. There are some crew on the boat (like the Captain) that are allowed to leave the boat and go ashore when they return to Honolulu. Therefore, the conclusion can be made (obviously) that any health issues onboard at sea…can be passed to people here in Honolulu with little or no knowledge ahead of time about the condition. Until it happens.

  • In my opinion, it may be those who have entered the country from the aforementioned tropical countries who have the disease that stays dormant for years. The article also mentions TB which was (or still is) has been a concern for years. Is there a proper screening of those who come into the US who may be infected? Perhaps a step up in monitoring and addressing like situations should be implemented.

    • I had heard the DOE doesn’t require TB clearances anymore. I guess transmitting a potentially fatal disease is less important than “stigmatizing” kids by asking them to get checked for the disease (and how can the infected kids be treated if they are not checked?). I would hate to be a teacher nowdays.

    • “Antibiotics typically kill the bacteria within days and make it non-contagious. It usually takes a year or two to fully clear the germ from the body. If left untreated, it can cause severe nerve damage, deformity and disability.”

      Although the infection can directly cause facial deformities, the deformaties to fingers, hands and feet are due to sensory nerve damage. Once this sets in, it cannot be “cured” with antibiotics. The loss of sensation is permanent, and without the ability pain, these individuals are unable to protect their limbs from injury, skin breakdown and ulceratiom, other infections, and severe arthritis. They remain at risk their entire lives.

      An excellent book about Hansen’s Disease and the importance of an intact physiologic pain response is “The Gift of Pain” by Paul Brand.

      https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0310221447

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