You might think of leprosy as a Biblical-era disease, but it's still around—now known as Hansen's disease—and two schoolchildren in California's Riverside County likely have it. As LiveScience reports, Hansen's disease is rare in the US, with just 100 to 200 cases reported in a typical year, and it's not clear where the children may have caught it. It's possible to get infected through contact with armadillos in the US, says one infectious-diseases specialist, but the risk is low. It's also possible to get infected through "prolonged close contact" with others who have the disease, though probably not through casual contact. Plus, an estimated 95% of people are naturally immune. California officials are not overly concerned about contagion, the Los Angeles Times reports, but the Press-Enterprise notes that the school saw a high number of absences after the diagnoses.
A significant number of the estimated 6,500 people in the US with Hansen's disease were born in another country, and may have contracted it there; transmission is more common in some African, Asian, and South American countries. The disease is caused by a bacterium, and it can take two to 10 years before an infected person shows symptoms. As CBS LA notes, leprosy is commonly associated with peeling skin and sores. It can be easily treated with antibiotics, but if untreated, Hansen's disease can permanently damage the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes; it can even paralyze or blind sufferers. The children's school disinfected classrooms, but "almost all of it will be overkill because this disease is not that contagious," says the specialist. There's just quite a bit of "stigma" attached to it, he adds. It will be weeks before the cases are confirmed to be Hansen's. (Click for more on the armadillo connection.)