Mystery virus hits 6 schools
- Mayen Jaymalin () - October 3, 2001 - 12:00am
Biochemical warfare or an honest-to-goodness Asian flu?

Health officials tried to quell unfounded fears of a "bio-terrorist" attack after a flu-like illness hit hundreds of students in Metro Manila yesterday and forced three private schools to suspend classes.

Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said doctors’ "provisional diagnosis" was a mild strain of the virus common during the influenza season that accompanies the May-October rainy season.

"Because there have been fears of a bio-terrorist attack in these past few days, there is no relation of this (flu outbreak) to this possibility," Dayrit said. "I think people just sort of jumped to conclusions. The picture was blown out of proportion."

Classes were suspended at De La Salle and Xavier School in Greenhills, San Juan, and St. Paul’s College in Pasig as school officials tried to quell not just the apparent flu outbreak but also the tide of panic from anxious parents.

The outbreak caused panic among parents already worried due to recent newspaper headlines of possible terrorist attacks using biological weapons and germ warfare, they added.

Dayrit said the spread of influenza among students from at least six private schools in Metro Manila is not related in any way to the possible release of biological agents into the air.

"The possibility that the increase in cases of influenza among students was caused by a biological agent released into the air and water supply is very unlikely," he said. "What we are seeing now are cases of influenza due to the fact that it is influenza season."

Dayrit said a good number became sick due to "psychosomatic reactions" after learning that their classmates were sick, and likewise observed that there has been no upsurge of illness in public schools.

Education Secretary Raul Roco also dismissed speculations that the illnesses were a result of a terrorist plot.

"There is no cause for alarm; it is most unlikely that the so-called germs or chemical weapons have something to do with this," he said.

The students, in grade school and high school levels, were suffering from "respiratory problems," fever and stomach aches, school officials said.

At Malacañang, President Arroyo instructed Dayrit to help quell the "hysteria" in Metro Manila stirred by text messages of alleged biological warfare stemming from the flu outbreak at La Salle-Greenhills.

"Her (President’s) order is to check it out, but again we’re worried it’s a combination perhaps of all these reports of biological warfare and flu breakout in one school, combined and delivered by text messages, stirred this kind of hysteria," Palace Spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said.

On Monday, dozens of students were sent home from the La Salle school in the Greenhills.

Yesterday, more students either called in sick or were sent home. The neighboring schools of Poveda Learning Center and St. Paul’s College in Pasig reported that hundreds of their students were also ill.

A Poveda school official, however, said the reports were "bloated" and "alarmist."

Mandaluyong Mayor Benhur Abalos said the local government was coordinating with health officials to "get to the bottom" of the problem. School administrators were told to clean up their premises, check air vents and disinfect areas.

Other affected schools were Xavier School, Dominican College, and Immaculate Conception Academy, all in San Juan.

The Department of Education said there were 500 cases reported in St. Paul’s Pasig; 291 in La Salle Greenhills; 41 in Xavier; and 100 in Poveda. Public schools were apparently not affected.

La Salle was forced to cancel all classes for two days after 213 students on Monday and another 284 students yesterday complained of stomach aches, fever and vomiting.

"This is a tremendous increase in the number of those who are sick. They can’t explain it and we are checking it out," Abalos said.

Abalos’ father, Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr., said he has spoken to doctors in the affected schools and learned that the illness was most probably influenza, or what is commonly known as the flu.

Health Undersecretary Antonio Lopez said he was puzzled by the outbreak.

"If ever there is really a disease, why attack only private schools? The question posed by our epidemiologists is why were the public schools not affected at all?" he said.

Epidemiologists have been dispatched to check on the schools and contain the disease, Lopez added.

He noted that this was normally the start of the flu season in Metro Manila, where air pollution is a persistent scourge.

Action from school authorities like cancellation of classes, Dayrit said, only fueled speculations that something unusual was going on.

But Dayrit said the real situation was far from alarming based on the percentage of the pupils affected: a mere 0.5 percent to five percent of the respective school population.

Meanwhile, Transportation and Communications Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez is poised to personally lead a metrowide crackdown on smoke-belchers starting tomorrow, saying these vehicles could be a possible source of the mysterious disease that has down numerous students of certain schools in Quezon City.

The secretary said while it has not been established that the disease outbreak was due to an airborne virus, atmospheric pollution brought about by heavy emissions of carbon monoxide from vehicles poses serious health hazards to the people.

"Epidemics or no epidemics, we have to go after these smoke-belchers and ask the owners to correct the defects of their engines, or be banned permanently from our streets," Alvarez said.
National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said some of those afflicted may have been victims of hysteria.

Tiglao, for his part, told Reuters: "It’s just hysteria because of reports in media about chemical warfare."

Tiglao said the President and her Cabinet also received text rumors about the germ warfare yesterday even as they were conducting their weekly meeting at Malacañang.

"Right now, Secretary Dayrit and his officials are in the field checking the reports and what’s worrying is a big part of these reports are again text-based. It’s a kind of text-attacks again," he said.

Tiglao said he personally received text messages early in the morning yesterday about reports of 30 alleged victims of germ warfare. The number increased to 50 after an hour, and later shot up to 100.

Abalos Jr. met with school officials of La Salle-Greenhills behind closed doors yesterday. The school said the flu-like symptoms were observed in their students since last week.

"The erratic weather condition might have caused the symptoms but as far as we’re concerned, there is no outbreak here," a faculty member said.

In Xavier School, at least 79 students were reportedly affected. But school officials were quick to allay fears of any outbreak of disease inside their campus.

"According to DOH (San Juan), there is no cause for alarm. The rise in occurrence of fever observed in several schools in Metro Manila ... seems to be a function of the weather," a Xavier statement said. Classes in the school were suspended as school officials conducted fumigation and clean-up activities.

Poveda, for its part, denounced what it branded as alarmist reporting.

"We deplore the irresponsible reporting about the case of flu among our students," said Dr. Estrella Macrohon, adding only 18 out of their 2,200 students were feverish and allowed to go home yesterday.

"There is no truth about a reported 100 Poveda students being rushed to the hospital. We do have a number of absences but these are for varied reasons," she stressed.
Jampacked clinic
The first report of the outbreak came from St. Paul’s College in Pasig last Monday where an estimated 500 students were said to have been affected by an unknown virus inside the school.

Students from the pre-school, elementary and high school departments were advised by their teachers that classes would be suspended for the rest of the week.

No clear reason was given by the teachers except that there were 500 students who got sick and that fumigation was to be conducted in the school.

Although the announcement was made only last Monday, a number of parents reported that their daughters had been sick since last week.

In one particular class, it was confirmed as early as last Tuesday, 14 students became sick and were absent for several days because of fever.

However, the decision to suspend classes was issued Monday when the school’s clinic was filled with students who were weak and feverish.

Parents who were asked to pick up their children at the clinic saw that all of the beds were full and the place was jampacked.

Abalos Sr. however argued that there was no need for fumigation because the reason was definitely not dengue.

Nevertheless, the MMDA has sent out a team to check the schools for possible problems with sanitation.

The elder Abalos likewise called on the public to stay calm as he laughed off rumors that the outbreak may have been a case of "germ warfare" perpetrated by terrorists.

Sen. Robert Jaworski also appealed for calm yesterday even as he expressed doubt on the rumored biological warfare.

Jaworski, chairman of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources, said the public should not jump to conclusions and wait for a few days for things to settle down.

"By that time, the cause of the sickness would have been verified by health authorities, and the number of students affected might even go down from 500 or 700 to about 50 or 70," he said.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council for its part said that this was the first time that an outbreak affected such a huge number of individuals in a specific area in Metro Manila.

"We’re still coordinating with all concerned agencies and we have inspected the area, and apparently it’s airborne," said Johnny Yu, NDCC director for the National Capital Region.

Environment Secretary Heherson Alvarez has sent a technical team to investigate reports of the "airborne virus" in the affected schools.

"While we try to probe the source of this report in coordination with public health officials, let us remain calm and not fall prey to outright lies and misinformation," Alvarez said.

Arturo Ramos, a civil defense officer , said the symptoms could indicate a more serious illness.

"These (symptoms) may be a prelude to something bigger," he said. With reports from Marichu Villanueva, Marvin Sy, Efren Danao, Non Alquitran, Romel Bagares, Paolo Romero, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Matthew Estabillo, Sheila Crisostomo

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