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Itchy Rash Puzzles Health Officials

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 28, 2002 -- From Arizona to West Virginia, school kids are itching -- and no one seems to know why. In the last five months, health officials in 14 states have reported mysterious rashes in elementary school children, according to a CDC report released today.

Since the first rash was reported in Indiana last October, patterns of rashes have popped up in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.

In Connecticut, one school was closed for a day so classrooms could be cleaned, air-handling units checked, and air filters replaced. Five Pennsylvania schools have also been examined for some sort of environmental contamination. "But none of these inspections have shown anything," says John P. Maher, MD, MPH, director of health for Chester County, Penn.

The CDC is working with state and local health and education agencies to determine if there is a common cause, the report says.

Fifth disease -- the name given to a rash caused by parvovirus B19 -- is the most commonly identified condition associated with children's rashes. It's a mild facial rash, looking much like a "slapped cheek," says the CDC. The itchy rash spreads to the trunk and limbs and usually lasts no longer than 10 days. Kids usually have a low-grade fever, feel sluggish, possibly sniffling and sneezing.

But most public health officials say that it isn't fifth. "Most children have tested negative," Maher tells WebMD. Various other tests have been run, but no pattern has emerged, he says.

"Some of the newspapers have mentioned the possibility of a totally new virus," says Maher. "Right now we don't think that's true." What they do wonder -- if it's a variant of B19. "State health officials are working with a researcher on that right now."

Luckily, the rash "has been mild and self-limited, and kids are really not very sick," he says. In some cases, parents are resisting getting kids tested just because it's so mild.

Still, it's not been a fun winter for some kids. Among the cases cited in the CDC report:

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