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School Fears Stigma in Wake of TB Outbreak : Disease: Some at La Quinta High downplay tests, but a health official says that it's the largest incidence of drug-resistant tuberculosis ever in a U.S. high school.

May 27, 1994|LESLIE BERKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — Although health officials have ordered a second testing for a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis at La Quinta High School, some students and staff said Thursday they are more concerned about the stigma than the danger of the potentially deadly disease.

"Tuberculosis is not going to be the death of any students. But the sad thing is that it could be the death of the school," said Kevin McClure, a chemistry teacher and football and track coach at La Quinta.

McClure, 26, said he tested positive for exposure to TB during a screening last year, but he doesn't fear getting the disease. Rather, he said he worries that enrollment could drop at La Quinta next fall because of a new state law that gives parents a choice of sending their children to any school, no matter where they live.

McClure said although La Quinta has a strong scholastic record, he would "bet" that some parents will pass over the school or pull their students out for fear of TB.

Mitch Thomas, La Quinta's principal, said so far the TB outbreak at the school, in which 17 students were found with active cases and another 175 with exposures, has not hurt advance enrollment applications.

But he acknowledged that could change following a report this week that at least 18 more La Quinta students and two teachers tested newly positive, indicating they were exposed recently to a more drug-resistant strain of TB from a student who suffered a relapse of the disease. That student, Debi French, underwent surgery this week to have part of a lung removed.

Thomas said he had received 50 to 60 calls from parents Thursday about the tuberculosis issue. He said one father was considering removing his child from school, but most of the others were supportive.

"They wanted to know how can we get the message out that we are not a leper school," Thomas said.

Dottie Matlock, mother of a junior, said La Quinta "is probably one of the safest schools around because they have all these tests. I feel the school has taken every precaution."

Several students and faculty said they believe La Quinta has been unfairly singled out and that other schools probably have similar exposure to TB.

However, Dr. Hugh Stallworth, county health officer, said, "I really hate the stigma, but the reality is from what the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control) tells us: The outbreak we had at La Quinta High School is the largest outbreak of multiple drug resistant TB in a high school in the history of the United States. That kind of singles you out."

Parents at La Quinta should be aware of the potential danger, he said. "When you look at it, TB is potentially lethal. It is serious. Parents should be concerned enough to find out more about TB and to have their kids skin tested."

Stallworth said although the county doesn't have the resources to test all students in the county, next fall it will begin tuberculosis screening of all students who will be entering Orange County schools for the first time.

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