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Health officials confirm Riverside County child has leprosy

Health officials in Riverside County confirmed Friday that an elementary schoolchild has Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy.

The child appears to have contracted the rare disease from “someone that had been diagnosed with Hansen’s disease who had prolonged, close contact with the child,” said Barbara Cole, director for disease control for the Riverside County Department of Public Health.

Leprosy is spread through coughing and sneezing but requires that people spend long periods of time together, like living in the same household, experts say.

Cole could not provide details about how the child became infected but said the child lives in Jurupa Valley — in the western part of Riverside County — and the patient who spread the disease does not live in the county.

Cole said she expected the child to recover.

Earlier this month, health officials were notified that two children who attend Indian Hills Elementary School in Jurupa Valley might have Hansen’s disease, but only one case was confirmed, Cole said. 

“There’s no indication that the second child has Hansen’s disease,” she said.

Jurupa Unified School District officials sent a letter home to inform parents about the possible cases and also disinfected a few classrooms, but the district is taking no further precautions, officials said.

“We don’t feel there’s a risk at the school, and it’s safe for children to attend,” Cole said. 

Cole said national health guidelines don’t consider schools or workplaces the types of environments where leprosy is likely to be transmitted.

If patients go untreated, leprosy can be a devastating and contagious disease that causes nerve damage as well as skin lesions.

Despite the stigma around the disease, experts say that patients don’t need to be isolated and are easily treatable with antibiotics.

Approximately 95% of the population is naturally immune to the bacteria that cause leprosy. If someone is taking the recommended antibiotics, the bacteria stops being transmissible after just a few doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“None of our recommendations to the school or parents have changed,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, said in a statement. “It is incredibly difficult to contract leprosy. The school was safe before this case arose, and it still is.”

In 2014, there were 175 new cases of the disease in the United States, 20 of which were in California, according to the National Hansen’s Disease Program.

Though rare in the U.S., leprosy is widespread in countries such as Brazil and India. The majority of patients reported with leprosy in the United States each year were not born in the U.S. 

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

Twitter: @skarlamangla

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