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Outbreak of Fear Accompanies 2 Student Deaths From Bacteria

Health: Experts say the Folsom cases are probably unrelated but distribute antibiotics school-wide.

February 19, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOLSOM, Calif. — He seemed as indestructible as the next, a burly Folsom High senior in good health.

A few days after New Year's break, Robert Karle got what seemed like the flu. Then he died, suddenly, without warning. The culprit: a bacterial blood disease related to meningitis.

One month later, it happened again. Tanya Edsall, 17, succumbed on Feb. 7. The same malady. The same high school.

With the second death, unease has turned to dread for many parents and pupils who fear a contagious killer may strike again at the sprawling new campus on Sacramento County's suburban edge.

In response to the two deaths, county health officials ordered an extraordinary mass distribution of antibiotics at the 2,150-student high school while attempting to soothe fears of a mass outbreak of the illness, known as meningococcal disease. Experts say that the two cases are probably unrelated, and that the prospect of such an outbreak is remote.

But those steps weren't enough to inoculate Folsom High from a backlash.

Last week, a rival high school backed out of a girls basketball game at Folsom, citing health concerns. A boys game the next night went off only after worried discussions.

And it hasn't stopped. School band members performing in public have heard whispers. Girls on the soccer field have endured taunts from foes.

"It feels like we have a tattoo on our foreheads," said Jill Solberg, Folsom High's principal. "That is having a bigger impact on the students than anything else."

Though the deaths of two students at a single high school of meningococcal disease is a rarity in the United States, public health officials say the illness is hardly unique. About 3,000 cases occur around the nation each year. California has averaged more than 350 cases a year, and many more go unreported. About one in 10 ends in death.

The bacteria, harbored in saliva and mucus in the nose and throat, are carried by as much as 20% of the general population in winter months. Most people never develop an illness, which comes on like the flu. The telltale sign is a rash in many cases. Most outbreaks occur in close-quarter situations, such as military barracks. Students entering college dorms are increasingly being urged to get inoculated.

Although a vaccine is available for some strains, the type that killed Edsall and Karle is resistant to inoculations. The best preventive medicine, as Folsom High students heard repeatedly in recent weeks, is to avoid sharing anything that might be contaminated, from water bottles and soda cans to Chapstick.

It is a message that hasn't always sunk in.

"Some kids don't seem worried at all, and you still see them sharing drinks at lunch and stuff," said Sharlie Baclay, a senior. But not she. "Me and my boyfriend have stopped kissing for about two weeks."

"I've lost some sleep over it," added her sister, Lacey, a freshman. "Anyone could have it. It's scary."

Last week, the two girls joined their mother for an evening session at the high school on the disease and its consequences. Gail Baclay came away better informed, but hardly mollified.

"Panic, just sheer panic, runs through you," she said. "The safety of your children is at stake. When the second death hit, it was devastating. I was hysterical."

Health officials say the two deaths are probably a statistical fluke. Sacramento County has averaged about three deaths a year from the disease since 1996. The only unusual factor this year is that two students at the same high school died of the same strain.

Federal health officials declare an epidemic only if there is one case for every 10,000 people in a region. So far this year, Sacramento County is at less than one in 100,000.

"There is an awful lot of fear and a lot of misconceptions," said Dr. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County's health officer. "There has been what I believe is unwarranted panic."

Families of Folsom students say it's hard not to panic. One day, Karle and Edsall were ordinary kids, doing things kids ordinarily do. Then suddenly, their relatives were planning funerals.

After Edsall's death, teenagers piled into the nurse's office to be checked. Calls poured into the Sacramento County Health Department at 10 times the normal rate.

Trochet said the two students didn't get the disease directly from one another; the illness has an incubation period of two to 10 days, and the deaths came a month apart. Instead, she said, the bacteria likely ping-ponged through the student body.

Faced with a pool of students potentially carrying the disease and a growing chorus of worried parents, county health officials decided to conduct the mass effort to knock the bacteria off in a single day.

Class by class, students and teachers marched into the school's multipurpose room Feb. 9, two days after Edsall died, to get doses of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin.

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