After meeting with county and state health officials Monday, La Quinta High School Principal Mitch Thomas said he will send a letter home today urging parents to allow students to be tested for tuberculosis.
The letter says the county will offer free skin tests Monday at the school, which had an outbreak of six cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis last spring. Health officials have said the disease was most likely spread by a teen-age girl to her classmates, all of whom are now seniors.
Participation in the mass testing is voluntary, and parents have a choice whether to sign consent forms included in the letter. The correspondence will be printed in English and Vietnamese to accommodate the ethnically diverse student body, which is about 58% Vietnamese, school officials said. Forms in Spanish will be available upon request.
The letter, signed by Thomas, warns that any of the 1,400 students at La Quinta who are not tested “may be subject to exclusion from school in the future.”
The 110-member school staff will also be offered the TB screening.
Penny Weismuller, the county’s manager for disease control, said untested students could be kept out of school if they show symptoms of tuberculosis or the disease continues to spread within the student body.
“When you see this number of cases in a setting like that, we want to make sure we identify everyone who is affected,” said Weismuller, who works for the county Health Care Agency. It is possible for the early symptoms of tuberculosis to be misdiagnosed or overlooked entirely by young people, she added.
“A teen-age girl who is losing weight might not think it was a bad thing, for example, but it could be a sign of tuberculosis,” Weismuller said.
Last spring, county public health officials received reports of four cases of active tuberculosis discovered by private physicians treating La Quinta students.
In response, Weismuller said, 466 students believed to have been in contact with the TB victims were invited to take a skin test for the disease administered by the county.
But the parents of only 220 of those students agreed to the tests, which uncovered two more cases. A seventh La Quinta student had been previously diagnosed with tuberculosis, but that person is not believed to have any connection with the recent outbreak, Weismuller added.
All of the students discovered to have TB are under treatment and are no longer contagious, Weismuller said. One of them, the teen-age girl who was first diagnosed, was admitted last Wednesday to UCI Medical Center in Orange for treatment.
Health officials said the girl’s disease proved resistant to the most common TB drugs, but she seems to be responding to alternative medication.
Weismuller said two other students with the disease did not return to La Quinta this year. She said she did not immediately know which schools they are attending.
Thomas said parents at La Quinta seem to be responding calmly to news reports over the weekend about the tuberculosis testing. He said, however, that he has received other calls from misinformed people who believe tuberculosis is linked with a nonexistent outbreak of AIDS at the school.
Thomas said he is worried that the recent increase in tuberculosis in Orange County, which is partly linked to immigration from Southeast Asia where the disease is more prevalent, could prompt “immigrant bashing.”
Chris Carlson of Garden Grove, the mother of two sons attending La Quinta, said she will sign the consent forms for her children. “It is not out of fear,” she said, “but if the health department wants them to be tested, I would be foolish not to.”
Dr. Portia Choi, the county Health Care Agency’s tuberculosis specialist, said the students who participate in the test will have a small portion of a dead and purified TB cell injected in their forearms. Two to three days later, she said, nurses will check the injection site for hardening of the skin, an indication of TB exposure. A lung test then is used to determine whether a patient has an active infection.