PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Hundreds of youngsters in at least seven states have broken out in a mysterious rash, and some health investigators suspect it might be caused by a new or yet-to-be-identified virus.
The red, itchy rash appears to be more an annoyance than a serious health threat, but it has managed to temporarily close schools, worry parents and frustrate school administrators, for whom answers have been elusive.
Students in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state have complained about rashes on the face, arms, legs and body. For the most part, the rash goes away when the students leave school.
"For something like this to occur almost simultaneously in different parts of the country is, to my knowledge, unprecedented," said Dr. Norman Sykes, who examined about 30 suburban Philadelphia students who came down with the rash this month.
In the Quakertown Community School District, where nearly 170 students at all nine schools were confirmed to have the rash, an environmental company collected air and water samples and examined carpets, floor mats, vacuum bags and clothing, but all tested negative for contaminants.
"We may never know what this thing is," said Quakertown Superintendent Jim Scanlon.
Most school systems have ruled out an environmental cause, but not the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Wash., where more than 50 students and teachers complained about a rash.
Test results showed an abnormally high level of dust, dandruff and skin particles -- probably caused by an overactive ventilation system that took too much moisture out of the air.
"People are very concerned about their children," said Peninsula Superintendent Jim Coolican. "We say its not a long-term problem, but people say, 'How do you know? How do you know it won't be a problem for my child 10 years from now?"'
Sykes, a dermatologist and professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, suspects the culprit in Quakertown is either a mutation of the childhood illness known as fifth disease or a virus not yet known to science.
Fifth disease, so-called because it was once considered one of the five main childhood illnesses, produces a low fever and cold-like symptoms, followed by a rash that creates a "slapped cheek" appearance and a lacy red rash on the trunk, arms and legs.
Though Sykes' patients had those same symptoms, a blood test turned up no evidence of the virus that causes the disease. Sykes then performed a more sophisticated test and found DNA evidence of fifth disease virus. But nine other students tested negative for fifth disease.
"We only know a tiny, tiny percentage, certainly less than 10 percent, of the organisms that are in and on our bodies," said infectious-disease expert Madeline Drexler, author of "Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections."
Scanlon, the Quakertown superintendent, believes some of the rashes might have been caused by psychosomatic "hysteria." And some rashes were not rashes at all -- high school students rubbed themselves with sandpaper in a futile attempt to get the school shut down, he said.
"We sat there itching and then it got all red and bumpy and then it started stinging. I put a paper towel on it so it wouldn't burn that much," said 8-year-old Samantha Makl, who went to the hospital on the first day of the Quakertown outbreak.
Quakertown parent Keith Ruppel said the rashes are distracting his two children from their school work.
"I really wish they could find the cause," said the father of a 10-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. "But you can't keep them out of school."
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