Late-Season Flu Bug Strikes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It struck 8-year-old Shelby Cottey as she practiced writing cursive and capital Gs for an assignment Wednesday at La Ballona Elementary School in Culver City.

"The words started to get all mixed up and I felt dizzy," she said. "My head started to hurt."

Shelby was the last in her family to catch a late-season flu bug. Her 1-year-old sister was the first, and within days both parents and all five children in the family were coughing and struggling with upset stomachs.

"We all had it so bad," said Shelby's mother, Tammy Cottey-Gonzalez. "It was like the plague."

A Type B flu outbreak has hit Los Angeles County unexpectedly, health experts say, striking many elementary and middle school students in the last two weeks.

Until now, the flu season --which traditionally closes at the end of March--had been exceptionally mild, said Dr. David Dassey, deputy director of acute communicable disease control for the county Department of Health Services.

Reports started trickling in around March 15, and schools began citing an increased number of student and teacher absences, Dassey said. The highest number--25% of all reported flu cases since October--came in just last week, he said.

"School nurses were calling us saying, 'There's a line outside my office. They all have the same thing. What is it?'" Dassey said.

Students complained of headaches, sore throats, high fevers, body aches and fatigue. Dassey said it hard to explain why the flu has crept up so late in the season, but that children may be more susceptible because they are rarely vaccinated and swap germs in school all day.

"Kids may be less hygienic, coughing, sneezing and putting other kids at risk," he said. "So ground rules still apply here: Cover your mouth when you cough, wash your hands frequently, and, if you're sick, stay away from other people."

Dassey said cases have been reported in Eagle Rock, Hollywood, Redondo Beach, South-Central Los Angeles, Sylmar, Van Nuys and West Covina--and everywhere in between.

But an official of the Orange County Health Care Agency said experts are not aware of an increase in cases in their area.

The problem appears to be generally concentrated in Southern California so far, said Dr. Robert Murray, an epidemiologist with the California Department of Health Services' Division of Communicable Disease Control. It has been a mild flu season statewide, although Northern California has seen a slight increase in cases over the last few weeks, he said.

Suzanne Rue, a communicable disease resource nurse for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said this season's flu is different because it lasts only three or four days, instead of the usual seven days. But students are running severe temperatures, in some cases as high as 104 degrees, she said.

"It seems to be like the rolling virus," Rue said. "It starts in the classroom, but then siblings pick it up and it rolls over to another classroom."

Ann Jones, a nurse for the Hermosa Beach City School District, said she has been telling everybody to wash their hands and go to bed early.

"We tell them, 'Don't share your food, don't drink out of the same cup,'" she said. "But you know, kids will be kids."

Jones said she sent 10 students home from school in the last three days, and her own daughter contracted the flu a couple of weeks ago. "I said, 'Oh my goodness, it really has hit,'" she said.

The flu may be life-threatening for the elderly, the very young or people with cancer, HIV and AIDS, health officials said. They recommend drinking lots of liquid, resting and taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches. Parents should not give their children any medication with aspirin because it may increase their risk of developing Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal liver disease, officials said.

Nationwide in recent years, influenza of one strain or another is associated with an average of 20,000 deaths annually and more than 100,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In Culver City, Shelby said she likes to takes hot baths when she is sick with the flu. On Wednesday, she had a relapse and had to rest in the nurse's office until her aunt picked her up early from school.

Shelby remembered how horrible it was last week when her entire family was suffering.

"It was bad. Everybody was in and out of the bathroom," she said. "My mom couldn't get out of bed, and we had to keep on going to the market to get Sprite and Gatorade and chicken soup."

Her father, Larry Gonzalez, said he had hoped that Shelby might have been the lucky one in the family to resist the flu. But with classmates and family members carrying the virus, she ended up with aches and dizziness too. "It's a school thing, man," he said.

Her mother added jokingly, "Kids. They're little germ carriers."

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