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Virus strikes elementaries in two areas Highest absenteeism hits Anne Arundel, Balto. Co. schools; 'Everyone was calling'; Symptoms are fever, headaches, cough, throat infection

From south Anne Arundel County to north of Towson, elementary school students are taking a hit from a rapidly spreading virus that has reduced class size in some schools by as much as a third.

And while one school official said "there is no health hazard," a Baltimore County pediatrician called the illness "an epidemic," judging by his jammed phone lines.

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No one is exactly certain what to call the latest rash of illness, but almost everyone recognizes the symptoms: high fever, headaches, throat infection and nagging cough. Elementary school students seem most susceptible, though no one is immune. Some schools are reporting a high number of absent teachers, too.

Though there are instances of the virus in all area school systems, Anne Arundel and schools on the east side of Baltimore County seem hardest hit.

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In Howard County, school officials said they had not seen rampant absenteeism. Information about illness-related absenteeism in Baltimore schools was not available yesterday, public information officers said.

The Baltimore County Health Department said 24 schools Monday -- including 17 public schools -- reported more than 10 percent absenteeism, up from seven Friday. Absenteeism was as high as 33 percent.

"That's a lot of kids," said Dr. Michelle Leverett, department director. "There is excessive absenteeism, but as a pediatrician I know this is the busiest season of the year. It's not necessarily an unusual number."

In Anne Arundel, 23 of 76 elementary schools have reported an absentee rate of 10 percent or more this month, said school system spokeswoman Nancy Jane Addams. On Monday, Edgewater and Freetown elementaries reported absentee rates of 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

Two Baltimore County elementaries, Elmwood and Seneca, had about a 33 percent absentee rate Monday, said Michele Prumo, coordinator of the school system's office of health services.

Three archdiocesan schools reported unusually high absenteeism this week. St. Pius X School near Rodgers Forge had more than 130 students -- or 30 percent of its enrollment -- absent Monday. The two other schools, Our Lady of Hope and Our Lady of Fatima, are in the city.

"This is the peak of the respiratory illness kids get," Ms. Prumo said. "There seems to be more [incidences] this year. In the two years I've been in this position, this is the most serious."

Dr. Leverett said viral infections escalate as the weather turns cold because people spend more time indoors, particularly during the holidays.

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"On Monday, everyone was calling," said Dr. Kenneth C. Schuberth, a Lutherville pediatrician who said he heard from hundreds of parents. "It's an epidemic." Though he hesitated to label the illness as influenza, Dr. Schuberth said patients had high fevers, aches, deep coughing and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms usually subside in two to five days, he said.

"We do have information that flu is circulating in Maryland," said Dr. Ebenezer Israel, director of the epidemiology and disease control program with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "It could very well be flu," he said of the highly contagious upper respiratory ailments.

Dr. Israel said three cases of influenza were diagnosed in city children last week.

"A lot of people refer to almost anything they get as flu," said Karen Stott, community relations director for the county health department. "Upper respiratory illness and flu share the same symptoms. I call them winter miseries."

Ms. Stott said elementary youngsters are susceptible to contagious diseases because they have not built up immune systems, there is much contact among youngsters and hygiene often leaves much to be desired.

Advice

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To ease the discomfort of viral infections, such as those sweeping area elementary schools, doctors recommend:

* Drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

* Giving nonaspirin medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to relieve headaches and discomfort from fever.

* Getting plenty of rest and taking a cough suppressant if persistent coughing interrupts sleep.

* Eating a normal, balanced diet, with a large dose of chicken soup, if it's appetizing.

* Staying away from other people as much as possible because these infections are so contagious. The old adage of staying home from school or work for 24 hours after a fever subsides is sound advice.

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Doctors caution that viral infections do not respond to antibiotics and parents should not expect doctors to prescribe them. Parents should call the doctor if a child's fever persists for more than three days or if coughs or headaches get worse.



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