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Mystery illness identified

Officials don't know what caused 10 students in Tampa to get sick, but it's unlikely the ailment was caused by something in the environment.

TIM GRANT
Published October 4, 2003

TAMPA - The mysterious illness that has afflicted at least 10 students at Gaither High School has been identified, but school officials still don't know what caused it.

A doctor treating many of the students on Friday said they have contracted respiratory stridor, a breathing problem caused by an obstruction or narrowing of the airway. The doctor said the illness is not contagious, and Hillsborough County School District officials don't think it was caused by environmental conditions at the high school, said Mark Hart, a school district spokesman.

At least 10 students, most of them members of the school's Starettes dance team, developed breathing problems after a performance at a Sept. 26 football game. They included eight Starettes, a student who was a friend of a team member and a member of the school's marching band.

Dr. Tapan Padhya, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of South Florida, is caring for eight of the 10 students. Hart said Padhya is treating them with antibiotics and steroids. The students also are seeing a speech pathologist through Moffitt Cancer Center.

Padhya could not be reached for comment Friday.

Respiratory stridor causes a high-pitched, raspy sound that is heard when a person inhales. It most often occurs in children, but can afflict older age groups.

It can be caused by a number of factors: a bacterial infection; a virus; and physical or chemical agents such as dusts, strong fumes or chemical cleaning compounds.

County health officials are reviewing tests done by the school district's safety department and those performed by Chastain-Skillman, private environmental consultants hired by the school district to analyze air quality in the school.

Hart said Chastain-Skillman also is checking for "volatile organic compounds," such as petroleum- or formaldehyde-based paints, which might have triggered the illnesses. He said those tests should be completed by the middle of next week.

In the meantime, Hart said the school district has verified the materials used on football fields are nontoxic and safe. He said the district also has determined the paint in the wing of the school where the Starettes practice is not the cause.

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