California Kids Suffering an Illness of “Biblical” Proportions?

Science & Medicine

It’s a disease you don’t hear about everyday: leprosy. It was a big deal in biblical times, but you probably don’t personally know someone who has experienced it. However, the painful and unsightly skin disorder is making a reappearance in California – in school children.

Needless to say, parents are on-edge.

What is Leprosy?

According to WebMD, leprosy “is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs.” In ancient times, if you had leprosy, you were sequestered so as not to infect others.

Leprosy patients were very much stigmatized. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible, people with leprosy were declared “unclean” and forced to live alone.

In truth, leprosy isn’t that contagious. You can catch it only if you come into close and repeated contact with nose and mouth droplets from someone with untreated leprosy. It affects more children than adults.

It takes 3 to 5 years for symptoms of leprosy to occur after coming into contact with Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae), the bacterium that causes the disorder. Some people don’t develop symptoms for 20 years. This makes it difficult for doctors to determine when and where a patient contracted the leprosy.

Leprosy is easily treatable with antibiotics, though most of the population is immune to the illness.

The California Cases

Parents have been warned that 2 cases of leprosy may have broken out at Indian Hills Elementary School in Jurupa Valley, and some moms and dads are now refusing to send their kids to school out of fear they could catch the skin-rotting disease. [1]

The warning letters were sent out on September 2.

Jurupa Valley Unified Superintendent Elliott Duchon said the school’s classrooms have been decontaminated. The district is advising parents to conduct their daily business as usual, including sending their kids to school. Duchon said:

“For parents, they need to make a decision for their children but we’re not recommending any precautions. There is not a risk at this time.”

Barbara Cole, director for disease control for the Riverside County Department of Public Health, said schools and workplaces aren’t considered by national health guidelines to be the types of environments where leprosy is likely to be transmitted. [2]

She said:

“Even if the cases were confirmed … leprosy is not easily transmitted to others, and we don’t feel like there’s a risk in the school setting. It’s not a highly contagious disease.”

It will take several weeks for the Riverside County Department of Public Health to confirm the cases.

Indian Hills Elementary School learned that leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was potentially in the facility when a parent notified the school’s nursing staff of a preliminary diagnosis for a student there. The children were not hospitalized.

Is Leprosy Making a Comeback?

Leprosy isn’t really making a comeback, because it never really left. It’s uncommon, but it has become more common in recent years.

We saw Hansen’s disease in at least 9 patients in Florida last summer, where its source was traced back to nine-banded armadillos. So if you live in Florida, don’t play with armadillos. Seriously, you’d have to get pretty up-close and personal with an armadillo to catch leprosy from it. [3]

It is also believed that some migrants entering the U.S. are unknowingly bringing leprosy with them. [4]


CBS News Los Angeles

[1] The Sun

[2] Los Angeles Times

[3] Land O’ Lakes Patch

[4] New Straits Times Online