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Germ Warfare : Valley Students Are Losing the Fight Against Influenza

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While the East Coast is battling the cold, Southern California is at war with the flu. And many of the casualties are children.

For the past few weeks, since well before the Christmas vacation, scores of schoolchildren have been felled by what appear to be at least two strains of the virus in Los Angeles County’s worst flu outbreak in the last decade, county health authorities say.

“It’s an epidemic,” said Evangelina Perez, the nurse’s aide at San Fernando Elementary School.

As on other city campuses, where ideas and germs are shared in equal measure, the tiny nurse’s office at San Fernando has been inundated recently with boys and girls complaining of headaches, stomach pains and fevers--sure signs of influenza at this time of year.

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On Monday morning, within 3 1/2 hours after the school bell first rang, nearly a dozen youngsters had shuffled into the infirmary, had their temperatures taken and were promptly sent home, including 7-year-old Jairo Garcia.

“I told the teacher that it hurts right here,” Jairo said, his fingertips massaging his forehead.

A plastic thermometer registered Jairo’s temperature at just under 100. Nurse Erlinda Balagtas summoned the boy’s mother.

“Even some of the nurses are getting sick, too, because you’re around kids with flu,” Balagtas said. “I think there’s a different virus in every school.”

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According to county health authorities, two flu strains have already been isolated locally: influenza A Texas and influenza A Johannesburg. The first confirmed flu case appeared during Thanksgiving week, two to three weeks earlier than usual.

A rash of cases in the Los Angeles Unified School District was reported about the same time, then spread from secondary schools down to elementary campuses, whose young students do not have fully developed immune systems.

“We clearly saw at the end of November the beginning signs of the flu outbreak,” said Suzanne Rue, the district nurse. “I’d see reports on the news . . . and shake my head and say yes, yes, it was accurately reporting what was going on in schools.

“We had several schools that had in excess of 10% absent,” which must be reported to county health officials, Rue said.

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Some campuses suffered up to a 30% absentee rate, county health officials said.

Neither the school district nor county health officials have a total of flu cases, except those confirmed by local hospitals. In the last two months of 1995, one local laboratory identified 46 cases of flu, compared to just three during the same period in 1994.

At San Fernando Middle School, about 50 students last month were hit so hard that they missed school for an entire week--sometimes two.

“That’s extensive,” said school nurse Linda Handschumacher. In other cases, “most of our kids are out just one or two days,” she said.

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Down the street at San Fernando Elementary, Balagtas watched her caseload climb before the holiday break to its current busy level.

The children enter her office clutching teacher-signed referral forms with terse comments such as"headache” or “stomach hurts.” Then Balagtas looks for telltale signs that cannot be faked by even the most mischievous students hoping to skip class: reddened eyes and hot foreheads.

“I’m a nurse. I cannot diagnose, but I recognize the symptoms,” she said.

Last week, some youngsters went home with temperatures as high as 104 degrees. Balagtas plays it safe, sending home any child whose temperature runs 99.8 or higher. That took care of young Jairo (99.8), then 11-year-old Anthony Delgadillo (100) a quarter of an hour later, then 9-year-old Julie Rodarte (100.8) just a few minutes after that.

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“I don’t want it to get worse later,” Balagtas said.


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