Deaths of five children trigger inquiry

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 22, 2003

Worried parents jammed doctors’ offices and emergency rooms Friday as Virginia health officials investigated the sudden, unexplained deaths this week of five children.

&uot;I’m kind of scared, with five children dying like that,&uot; said Bouvia Franklin as he left a Norfolk Hospital with his 16-month-old daughter, Nadia, who had just been treated for a runny nose. &uot;They need to hurry up and find out what happened.&uot;

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was assisting Virginia officials in its investigation of the five deaths since Sunday – four from Sunday – from the southeastern Virginia cities of Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Hampton, and another 100 miles away in Richmond.

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Dr. Robert B. Stroube, the state health commissioner, said it’s possible the cases may have nothing in common. Autopsies were done and tests were being conducted. A preliminary investigation showed only that most of the children had upper-respiratory infections.

Because of the country’s heightened state of alert, Stroube said, the health department was monitoring even more closely any situation in which there appears to be a pattern of illnesses or deaths. He stressed that preliminary findings suggested it was unlikely the deaths were related to bioterrorism.

Seven-year-old Rachel Broome of Virginia Beach went home sick on Monday with a cough and never returned to class, said Patricia C. Slaughter, principal at Trantwood Elementary School. She died Wednesday.

Rachel was a budding artist and her last words were, &uot;The colors, they’re all becoming one,&uot; according to her obituary published Friday in The Virginian-Pilot.

The school sent a letter home to parents Thursday telling them about Rachel’s death, and teachers, counselors and psychologists talked to the school’s 600 pupils.

&uot;She was absolutely precious,&uot; Slaughter said. &uot;She was a delightful little girl.&uot;

Awilda A. Carter, mother of the first child to die, 2-year-old Maria Carter of Portsmouth, said her daughter had been running a fever and vomiting. The girl fell asleep on the couch Sunday and never woke up.

Doctors initially said the girl had an ear infection but changed the diagnosis to influenza, Carter said. After the autopsy, doctors told the family they thought a virus had attacked the girl’s heart muscle.

&uot;She was running around and playing,&uot; Carter told WTKR-TV. &uot;She kept having a fever, but she never got more sick.&uot;

As word of the deaths spread, parents sought assurance from medical professionals that their own children would be OK.

Melisa Oarnquist, who works the front desk at Northern Suffolk Family Practice, said her office had been swamped with calls from parents concerned about their children.

&uot;We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls all day,&uot; said Oarnquist. &uot;We were so busy that I had to refer three patients to urgent care centers because our physicians were completely booked all day.

Had it not been for the deaths, the parents of many of the young patients probably would have waited the weekend to see if their children showed signs of improvement, Oarnquist said.

At Suffolk Pediatrics, on the outskirts of downtown Suffolk, things were hectic all day., said a spokeswoman from the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.

&uot;We’ve been extremely busy but no more so than on a usual Friday in February,&uot; she said.

Although the CHKD-owned Suffolk Pediatrics reported being barraged by telephone calls all morning, the practice did not see any more patients than usual. Overall, CHKD’s 13 Hampton Roads’ pediatric practices saw 40 percent more children than usual on Friday.

Obici Hospital didn’t see any increases in patients coming in through the emergency room, said Gloria Seitz, spokeswoman for the hospital.

Dr. Larry Gernon, director of the Suffolk Health Department, said his office received a lot of calls Friday.

&uot;It’s been insane,&uot; Gernon said. &uot;People want to know what happened. Any information we give out now would only be speculation.

&uot;But right now, we just don’t know what happened. We won’t know until we get the autopsies back,&uot; he continued. &uot;We need to get a definite diagnosis before we open a Pandora’s box.&uot;

He said it could be Tuesday or Wednesday before the test results are back.

Triage nurse Louise Kadlec of Tidewater Children’s Associates in Virginia Beach had talked to so many parents by phone that her voice was hoarse by mid-morning. All 10 of the practice’s pediatricians had packed schedules, and well-baby checkups were canceled to make room for emergency appointments, she said.

&uot;Parents want to know what these children died from,&uot; Kadlec said. &uot;We have no answers. We have no clue.&uot;

Kelly Thomas of Hampton took her 8-year-old daughter, Kiana, to Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters as a precaution Friday because the girl had a cough, congestion and a fever. But she left after an hour, discouraged by the wait that she was told could last at least two more hours.

The deaths concerned her, Thomas said, &uot;but I feel like we have to get more information and not jump to any conclusions.&uot;

Dr. Douglas Mitchell, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, said parents should not panic but should seek medical attention if their children have high fevers, labored breathing and are not eating well.

&uot;There are severe illnesses that happen every year,&uot; said Mitchell, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Center for Pediatric Research. &uot;This has come to people’s attention because they are clustered so closely together. If they were spread out, no one would be thinking about it.&uot;

Mitchell declined to speculate what may have killed the children.

However, he said certain diseases were known to be circulating among children in southeastern Virginia: influenza, strep throat, gastrointestinal diarrhea and respiratory syncytial virus, which causes head colds in adults and older children but can cause a pneumonia-like illness in infants.

These diseases are rarely fatal, Mitchell said.

News-Herald staff writer Allison Williams contributed to this story.