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What Made Laguna Kids Sick?

Officials seek the source of stomach virus shared by 93 sixth-graders at a Catalina Island camp.

November 27, 2002|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Health officials are investigating what caused 93 Laguna Beach sixth-graders to fall ill with a stomach virus during a five-day trip to Santa Catalina Island last week.

About 50 parents met Tuesday with Thurston Middle School Principal Chris Duddy to separate fact from rumor and to discuss possible changes when students make the trip next year.

One parent became so worried that he rode to the rescue in his racing speedboat, zooming across the channel at 100 mph to ferry two doctors, a nurse and a physical therapist -- all parents of students at the camp -- from Dana Point to Catalina in about 20 minutes to treat the children.

When they arrived at Toyon Bay, boat owner Matt Alcone said, they were greeted by parents and teachers wearing surgical masks and gloves. Some had been up for 48 hours caring for the sick children. The arriving medical crew could do little more than what was already being done.

Several parents at the meeting commended the chaperons for their care of the youngsters.

The sixth-graders appear to have been stricken with viral gastroenteritis, which can be caused by any number of viruses, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. It is often mistakenly called stomach flu, although influenza viruses don't cause it. The results, though, are the same. The illness can spread through contact with sick people and by eating or drinking contaminated food.

School officials Tuesday passed out a health care agency questionnaire to determine if the sick students ate, drank or shared something else that could have brought on the sickness.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services was checking the Catalina Island Marine Institute's science camp to make sure nothing there was contaminated.

Maria Iacobo, a spokeswoman for the agency, said officials there suspect that some kids were sick before they made the trip and spread the disease.

Students went to the Catalina Island Marine Institute to learn about sea life, and to snorkel and rock-climb. Duddy said the school had been on the waiting list for the institute for a year.

The trip began Nov. 18, when 217 students, 17 parents and three teachers were bused to San Pedro to catch the ferry.

Ross Palfreyman, 48, one of the parent chaperons, said students started getting sick Thursday afternoon. As the day went on, more children began getting sick at dinner. Chaperons emptied one dorm and made it a sick ward, filling it with 20 students. Then they turned another dorm into an infirmary, quickly filling it too.

"We realized we had more sick kids than healthy kids, and we were running out of places to move them," Palfreyman said.

The sickness came on so quickly that students out hiking would suddenly vomit.

Paramedics from Avalon were called; they said the children had the flu.

Palfreyman said the adults were giving the students drinks and ice chips to suck on.

Meanwhile, parents on the mainland began receiving phone calls about the epidemic Thursday night. A group of parents tried to charter a helicopter, but no pilot would make the trip at night.

Alcone, a three-time speedboat national and world champion whose son was at the camp, knew he had a way to get there quickly. His boat, he said, could travel 150 mph. He was especially worried, he said, because of the recent outbreaks of illness among cruise ship passengers, as well as meningitis cases in schools. He and the other parents arrived at the camp about 7:15 Friday morning.

All of the campers returned home Friday, a couple of hours earlier than scheduled.

Although they found the sight of so many of their friends getting ill unsettling, many of the students said they had a good time.

"He'd go back again tomorrow, if he could," Dianne LeBon said of her son.


Times staff writer Stanley Allison contributed to this report.

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