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No Common Cause Found For Outbreaks of Rashes

A national investigation of recent outbreaks of rashes among schoolchildren in more than a dozen states has found no common cause, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since October, state and local health departments in 14 states have reported such outbreaks, usually among elementary school pupils who developed rashes on their faces, necks, hands, or arms that lasted anywhere from a few hours to two weeks.

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The outbreaks have affected from 10 to 600 people at a time, according to a report released March 1 by the Atlanta-based CDC. Clinicians who examined the children listed a number of possible sources for the rashes, including viruses, chemical exposure, and poison ivy.

The CDC requested reports from all 50 states on any outbreaks of rashes, but found differences in the cases reported and no common root for the occurrences.

"With 53 million young people attending 117,000 schools each school day in the United States, it is expected that rashes from a wide range of causes will be observed," the study concluded.

Such outbreaks are usually the result of bacterial or viral infections or environmental factors, according to the report.

But health officials tentatively concluded that the rashes probably weren't caused by "infectious agents" because none of the children who developed the rashes suffered from symptoms such as fevers or headaches.

Outbreaks were reported in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, New York state, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington state, and West Virginia.

Debate Over Drinking

A Columbia University-based research organization has acknowledged a research flaw in its recent report on underage drinking, but appears to be sticking to its controversial estimate that young people under 21 drink at least a quarter of all the alcohol consumed in the United States.

That figure was widely reported by several prominent news organizations that received the information on a press release for "Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic," a report issued Feb. 26 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA. The center's president, Joseph A. Califano Jr., was the U.S. secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Carter administration.

The center at Columbia drew on data from the Household Survey on Drug Abuse, a yearly poll of 25,500 people conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The CASA report concluded that 5 million high school students, or 31 percent, admitted to "binge" drinking at least once a month.

But an article in The New York Times took issue with the 25-percent-of-all-drinking finding.

The household survey includes nearly 10,000 people ages 12 to 20, an oversample designed to ensure that there would be enough data from young people to make findings from the survey statistically valid.

"So young people made up almost 40 percent of the survey, although they make up less than 20 percent of the population," the Feb. 27 New York Times article pointed out. "In estimating their share of alcohol consumption, the center did not adjust the data to account for the oversampling."

Once the adjustment is made, the figure for the proportion of alcohol consumed by Americans under 21 drops to 11.4 percent. Federal officials agreed with the newspaper's conclusion and posted a press release on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Web site that cited 11.4 percent as the correct figure.

The Columbia center promptly acknowledged the oversight. But CASA also contended in a Feb. 26 statement that the 11.4 percent figure likely does not come close to reflecting the extent of the country's underage-drinking problem. That's because, the center says:

  • The household survey underestimates the level of alcohol consumption because it depends on self-reported data from young people, collected with parental permission while parents are in the next room.
  • The survey's drinking data were based on a typical day's drinks and didn't account for binge drinking to get intoxicated. Underage drinkers were twice as likely as adult drinkers to have gotten drunk in the previous month, according to the center.
  • The survey does not include children under the age of 12.

"Adjusting for these facts could raise the estimate to 30 percent or more," the center argues. "CASA's estimate is that underage drinkers consume 25 percent of the alcohol consumed in the [United States]. But whether children and teens drink 15, 25, or 30 percent of the alcohol consumed, the reality is that America has an underage drinking epidemic."

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 21, Issue 26, Page 6

Published in Print: March 13, 2002, as Health Update
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