Mystery illness baffles doctors, CDC


Lawrence Blaskey / Eastern Arizona Courier / March 9, 1999


The flu-like symptoms that have plagued residents in southeastern Arizona may turn out to be more than a simple winter sickness. Experts with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were in Arizona last week to investigate a cluster of respiratory problems that have made some area residents extremely ill.

The investigators flew back to Atlanta last weekend after finding no single cause of the symptoms that recently sent four teens to the Mount Graham Community Hospital emergency room. Two of those were sent to St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson because the hospital simply ran out of available rooms.

CDC investigators and representatives from the Arizona Department of Health Services were confident that the cases did not signal a public health emergency.

The investigation focused on eight or nine teenagers and children but quickly centered on the four teens that were hospitalized and shared similar symptoms: sudden high fever, rapid heart rate, plummeting blood pressure and respiratory distress.

Tests for the two likely infectious suspects influenza-A, which is running rampant through Arizona and the rest of the country, and the so-called invasive group A strep, which can quickly lead to organ failure and death have so far turned up negative, according to an ADHS official.

Blood tests are still being run on the teens, and they will be for the next few weeks to see if they develop antibodies to specific bacteria or viral organisms. "It's not like the movie 'Outbreak.' We haven't had to put these kids on ventilators, and that's good news," said Dr. John Barbererii, an emergency room physician with the hospital. "Instead of continuing to get very, very sick, these patients have all done very well with antibiotics and supportive care."

The cluster of patients began about a week after a 2-year-old boy was brought to the hospital already seriously ill. Within a few hours he was dead. But according to Betty Ann Hazell of Mount Graham Community Hospital, the death and subsequent illnesses are not related.

Also, those who have developed RSV (which could develop into pneumonia and bronchitis) are not directly related to the illnesses that sent the two teems to a Tucson hospital.

An autopsy performed at Tucson Medical Center confirmed the 2-year-old had died from pneumonia and sepsis (an infected bloodstream) brought on by invasive strep. Hazell said residents in the area could be suffering not from one, but several different types of contagious illnesses making their way through the Gila Valley, including influenza, RSV and other viruses.

She said the ADHS and CDC were unsure if the problems affecting the teens was a new viral strain or just a combination of viral infections. RSV symptoms include a high, persistent fever above 101 degrees, shortness of breath, excessive vomiting, dry skin, coughing up blood and the inability to take in fluid. Dr. Barbererii said that if these symptoms arise, particularly among teens or children, the patient should be evaluated by the primary care physician or in the hospital's emergency room.

'We often see a lot of elderly patients in our hospital for these type of symptoms each winter. But we are seeing a large number of teens this year," Hazell said.

The ADHS said that parents who see their children suffer the same type of flu-like symptoms that affected the teens sudden high fever, rapid heart rate, plummeting blood pressure and respiratory distress shouldn't simply give the child Tylenol and send them off to bed. They suggested notifying the family physician, and if the child continues to be getting progressively more ill, they should consider the condition serious and immediately see the doctor or take the child to the emergency room.