O.C. School Struggles With Stigma of TB : Health: Some carriers and non-carriers are made to feel like outcasts. Others say it's brought them closer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

La Quinta High School students have developed a ghoulish parody of their familiar "spirit" cheer. It goes, "We got TB, yeah, yeah. We got TB, yeah, yeah. We got cough, cough, cough, cough . . . "

Dark humor is the students' weapon of defense against public ignorance about the disease that has branded their school, said Jim Perry, the school athletic director.

La Quinta students and staff say that since last year, when health authorities reported an outbreak of tuberculosis on campus, they have been deeply hurt, even outraged, by the community's reaction.

"We are a very good school both academically and athletically, and it is the first time anyone has bloodied our nose like this unfairly," said John Alexander, an English teacher.

La Quinta's distress stems from the fact that, according to county health authorities, it has been the site of the largest outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis of any high school in the nation. Nearly 200 have tested positive for the bacteria over the past year, and all students and teachers are currently being retested.

Over the past year, the students and faculty have become well-educated about the disease, which once was nearly eliminated in the United States but is again resurfacing in Orange County and throughout the country.

They have learned TB is spread through the air by coughing and talking. But they are calmed to know, they say, that everyone at the school who was diagnosed with active disease is no longer contagious after taking medication that kills the bacteria in their sputum. And they have been assured by public health workers that the many others who skin-tested positive--but who have no active infection in their lungs--also are not contagious.

Their only regret, they say, is that the public is not as well educated.

Students and faculty relate a litany of instances when they have been treated like modern-day lepers:

The teacher out at the movies who noticed two women in the ticket line step back fearfully when they saw his La Quinta Aztec blue and gold baseball cap. The visiting swim team that fretted about catching tuberculosis in the pool. The customer who walked out of a restaurant as soon as their waitress said she attends La Quinta. The countless times outsiders have callously referred to La Quinta as "the tuberculosis school."

One of the sharpest slights, they said, occurred a week ago at the quarterfinals of the southern section of the California Interscholastic Federation baseball playoffs. Several days before the game, some parents and the principal at the competing school, St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, called La Quinta Principal Mitch Thomas to make sure the campus was safe for Bosco's students.

Bill Goodman, St. John Bosco's principal, said he knew enough not to be concerned that La Quinta students were contagious but called to appease parents.

Ultimately the game was played, and La Quinta won by a score of 10-2. But La Quinta fans were distressed to see that several of the visiting spectators wore surgical masks.

"It gave the impression that we were somehow infectious," said Jodi Richerson, mother of a junior at La Quinta who was there. "The students are upset that anyone would think they would knowingly infect anybody," she said.

Then at Garden Grove's Strawberry Festival parade, Richerson said, she walked the parade route beside the La Quinta band in which her 16-year-old daughter marched as a cheerleader, and listened to the comments of spectators as the marchers passed by.

"Some said things such as 'turn your heads or you might get tuberculosis,' " she said.

It was last fall that county health authorities reported that an outbreak of tuberculosis had reached alarming proportions at La Quinta. They said 17 students within the 1,300-member student body had been found to have active tuberculosis since 1991, including 12 who shared the same drug-resistant strain.

A series of skin tests, culminating with screening of the entire student body last September, found that 175 more students tested positive for the TB bacteria, meaning they had non-active TB bacteria in their systems that could develop into active disease in the future.

The contagious students were treated with drugs to make them not contagious, and the bacteria-exposed students were placed on a six-month preventive medication regimen, with drugs administered routinely by nurses on campus. Publicity about the TB outbreak subsided.

But the school once again gained notoriety when Debi French, a senior, in February suffered a relapse of highly drug-resistant TB and was forced to go to Denver for specialized treatment. When first-line drugs failed to cure her, French was put on a group of backup drugs and finally had part of a diseased lung removed last month. Her family said she is expected to return to her Westminster home today and hopes to return to La Quinta next year make up missed classes.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Health Care Agency conducted limited testing of French's closest contacts and found that 18 students and two teachers had become positive for TB exposure.

Subsequently, they ordered another round of campuswide TB testing, set for this week. But most at La Quinta seem to be taking the newest TB threat in stride.

Thomas, the school's principal, said that although the students are "a little annoyed by having to go through it again, they understand the medical need and reason." He said the parents of three students have informed him they may withdraw the students from the school for fear of a TB recurrence. But so far no students have left.

"I think the kids are pulling together. Spirits are good, considering the circumstances," Thomas said. Late last week, he said, the tuberculosis issue was overshadowed by student excitement and anticipation of the baseball game Saturday against West Torrance High School for the CIF southern section championship.

Several students said they feel confident that the county health officials are taking every precaution to protect them from another tuberculosis outbreak. Some said their classmates have become better friends by talking about TB, even comparing skin tests.

"It has brought the school together. Everyone has had to face it," agreed Jennifer Chapman, 18, the student body president.

Among the concerns many of the students share, they said, is whether they will be discriminated against in seeking summer employment. "I am looking for a summer job, and I worry about that," said Tram Nguyen, a senior who tested positive last year for the TB bacterium and has completed her TB-prevention treatment.

Students say that not only strangers, but some members of their own families, have become nervous about contracting tuberculosis from them. Tamisha Jackett, 17, said that although her TB skin tests were negative, her sister has told her she may no longer kiss her year-old nephew or blow on his food to cool it.

Some faculty, meanwhile, worry that the school enrollment may fall if youngsters in the community who are unduly fearful of the TB outbreak choose to bypass La Quinta to attend other schools.

Richerson, the parent of a La Quinta cheerleader, said that in the wake of the new testing, it is likely that the school will have to forgo the pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners that have been strong fund-raisers in the past. "I don't think people are going to want to eat at the school," she said.

"I really understand what a stigma is now," she added. "I don't think the way some of these students are treated is different from the way people with AIDS are treated."

Dr. Hugh Stallworth, the county public health officer, said authorities "have not determined there is anyone at La Quinta who is communicable with tuberculosis." He stressed that even the 18 students and two teachers who newly tested positive for the TB bacteria, had normal chest X-rays, so they are not infectious. "There is nothing that the community should worry about," he said.

But the stigma persists. Last month, visiting spectators at a boys' volleyball playoff shouted to the competing team: "Don't go near the net!" Perry, the athletic director, said he was at first tempted to "run up and smack them." But then he reflected on the situation, he said, and thought, "It is a shame that they are that ignorant and misinformed."

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