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Unanswered questions about outbreak haunt parents

May 10, 2007 | The Bakersfield Californian

When kindergarten mothers get together this time of year, the conversation typically revolves around first-grade curriculum and end-of-year party planning.

Not Tuesday's coffee klatsch near Ronald Reagan School. Some of these mothers' 5- and 6-year-olds had been infected with E. coli. How had it happened, they needed to know, and were others still at risk? Some kids had been in such close, frequent contact with affected classmates, their continuing good health could only have been providence or dumb luck.

"We were all comparing notes, and we were all a little frazzled," said Kisno Bianchi, who brought her concerns to the meeting. "We had so many questions. 'How many other kids are sick that we don't know about? Is it safe for us to send our children back to school or not?' And we weren't getting very good answers."

On April 27, one kindergartner got sick. Within a few days, a dozen had become ill. Two weeks later, their southwest Bakersfield neighborhood was dealing with a full-blown outbreak of E. coli 0157. At least two kids remain hospitalized.

The mothers (and one father) gathered Tuesday to retrace their children's steps over the previous few days. They wrestled with the understandable parenting questions: How, for example, does one explain all this in nontraumatizing terms, simple enough for a 6-year-old to digest?

They expressed frustration, too, about the response of the Kern County Department of Public Health. Parents of the children who were likely exposed to the contaminating agent whatever it was didn't get a call until May 4, a week after the first child got sick and two days after the county agency learned it was probably dealing with some sort of toxic bacteria.

On Wednesday, 21/2 weeks after the first child became ill, parents learned they were in fact dealing with E. coli.

That sort of delay isn't unusual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it can take two, even three weeks for health investigators to confirm an E. coli outbreak from the beginning of the first patient's illness.

That doesn't mean the Public Health Department couldn't have more promptly addressed the situation.

Parents would have liked more information from Reagan School, too, but the school district's policy requires schools to follow the directives of the public health department. The school issued letters last Friday and again Monday, but by then, many people who have children at Reagan School which is not thought to be the outbreak's origination point knew something was up. What it was, they could only speculate.

"It's been hard, wondering where it's come from," said Irma Cease, who, like Bianchi, has a daughter in the affected kindergarten class. "I wish the health department could have done more."

Such as telling parents even earlier to be watchful for signs of gastrointestinal distress. Conveying what was known, even in general terms, might have corralled some of the uncertainty.

Alerting Bakersfield pediatricians en masse to the outbreak would have been sensible too.

The few physicians I talked to didn't know anything about the reported illnesses until they read about them in The Californian -- which published its first story a week after the first child was sickened. The day the story came out, one local pediatrician I talked to heard from four mothers concerned about children with stomach aches -none of which, fortunately, proved serious. But at least those mothers were now alert to the possibility.

E. coli has been in the news on and off for a year now, as have assorted other incidents involving tainted foods. Only now does E. coli really hit home for these Reagan School parents.

Not that there was a lot they could have done about it beforehand, short of periodically hosing down their children with a chlorine bleach solution. Once E. coli manifests itself with blood in the stool, there's only one thing to do -- get to the hospital.

But, as the mothers at that coffee klatsch will tell you, it just would have been nice to know, and the sooner the better.

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