Viral disease and allergies suspected in school outbreak

MANASSAS — The source of a rash that has beset more than 100 students and staff members at Marsteller Middle School may lie in blood test results after a student was diagnosed with fifth disease, a viral infection common in school outbreaks.

School was closed Wednesday as officials awaited blood test results from 114 students and four staff members who were sent home Tuesday after experiencing the same itchy, red skin irritation reported by 50 students in the past week.

Wednesday was the second day in two weeks that school was closed due to the outbreaks.

Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said Wednesday evening that classes will be held today.

Fifth disease is common in children who typically experience a sometimes itchy rash on the cheek, limbs, and trunk. A low-grade fever, malaise, or cold symptoms may accompany the rash, according to the National Center for Infectious Diseases.

During a school outbreak, 60 percent of the school population may get the disease, which is caused by the parvovirus B19. Highly contagious, the virus is commonly found in respiratory secretions and usually spread by direct contact with those secretions.

The rash symptoms on a child are the last stage of the disease and indicate that the contagious period is over, according to center documentation.

The disease is called fifth disease because it is the fifth most common childhood rash.

Principal Karen Poindexter said most of the 114 students at Marsteller who experienced the rash on Tuesday also suffered from low-grade fevers.

Although the disease seems to be the likely culprit, some doctors who have examined several students are saying the rash is an allergic reaction to something in the school and not a viral infection, said Dr. Jared Florance, director of the Prince William Health District.

“We seem to be dealing with two things here,” he said. ” I am hearing two different things from doctors.”

Florance was at the school on Nov. 20, when 30 students experienced the rash, and said what he saw appeared to be a skin condition from an allergic reaction to something in the school.

However, no substance was found in the school’s environment that could be causing the rash after a series of environmental health and hazardous-materials tests, along with more tests for dust mites and mold by industrial hygienists.

“They pretty much did all they could do over the Thanksgiving weekend,” said Kelly.

“They tested everything. There’s nothing on the ground, on the surfaces of tables, desks. The air is fine. All environmental work has indicated that there is nothing that is contaminating the school,” Kelly said.

The decisions to close the school on Nov. 21 and Wednesday were made by school officials, and not due to recommendations made by health officials.

Poindexter and teachers spent Wednesday making calls to parents of students who were ill on Tuesday and were told by most parents that the rashes and fevers are gone.

Parents also took children to their family doctors, she said. “We have two who do not have the fifth disease.”

One student was diagnosed with poison ivy on Nov. 20 and was not in school on the day of the first outbreak, she said.

Even with the unsure, baffling circumstances of the skin infections, parents continue to be supportive, Poindexter said. “They want to know what’s causing it, just like we want to know.”

“I think the school is handling it very well,” said Anita Duecaster, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at Marsteller. “They apparently didn’t have to close the school down, they did it to alleviate fears.”

Marsha Rushing, a sixth-grader, said the last several days at school have been weird. “People are itching all over school. There were 11 kids in my class and most of my friends have been getting rashes,” she said.

“They’re getting us out of school which is good,” she said.

Blood samples were collected from students on Tuesday and were taken to Prince William Hospital for examination. Florance said the samples are being tested for fifth disease.

Blood test results were not available by press time Wednesday.

“If it is the fifth disease, it very safe to open school. The reason that is the case is, number one, it is not a serious disease, and number two, once the rash appears it is an indication that the student has already had the disease,” Kelly said.

About 940 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students attend Marsteller Middle School at 8730 Sudley Road in Manassas. The school attracts students from all over the county for its special math and science programs.

Staff writer Louise Cannon can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 123.

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