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Officials Probe Illness of Students on Catalina Field Trip

Ninety-three Laguna Beach sixth-graders had a stomach virus on the five-day outing. Parent ferried doctors to the island on his speedboat.

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 afternoon with Thurston Middle School Principal Chris Duddy to separate fact from rumor and to talk about possible changes for next year's trip.

One parent became so worried that he rode to the rescue in his championship speedboat, zooming across the channel at 100 mph to ferry two doctors, a nurse and a physical therapist -- all parents -- 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 of them had been up for 48 hours caring for the sick children.

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 be spread through contact with sick people and by eating and drinking contaminated food.

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

The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services was checking the Catalina Island Marine Institute to make sure nothing there was contaminated. Maria Iacobo, a spokeswoman for the department, said agency officials suspect that some pupils were sick before they made the trip and then spread the illness to the others.

Students went to the institute to learn about sea life, snorkel and engage in rock-climbing.

The trip began Nov. 18, when 217 students, 17 parents and three teachers left on a ferry from San Pedro.

Ross Palfreyman, 48, one of the parents who chaperoned, said children started getting sick Thursday afternoon. As the day went on, the numbers rose. One dorm was emptied, turned into a sick ward and soon filled with 20 children. Another was turned into an infirmary and quickly filled up too.

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

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

Meanwhile, parents on the mainland began receiving phone calls.

Alcone, a three-time speedboat 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 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 a.m. Friday.


Times staff writer Stanley Allison contributed to this report.

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