Hundreds of youngsters in seven states have broken out in a mysterious rash, and some investigators believe it may be caused by a new virus. ?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,? says 8-year-old Samantha Makl, who went to the hospital to have her rash treated.

Students in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state are complaining about rashes on their faces, arms, legs and body. The red, itchy rash is more of an annoyance than a serious health threat, but it has temporarily closed down some schools. The rash usually 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,? says Dr. Norman Sykes, a dermatologist and professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia who examined about 30 suburban Philadelphia students who came down with the rash.

In the Quakertown, PA Community School District, where nearly 170 students at all nine schools got the rash, an environmental company collected air and water samples and examined carpets, floor mats, vacuum bags and clothing, but everything tested negative for contaminants. ?We may never know what this thing is,? says Quakertown Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

At the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Washington, more than 50 students and teachers complained about a rash. Test results there showed an abnormally high level of dust, dandruff and skin particles, probably caused by a ventilation system that took too much moisture out of the air.

?People are very concerned about their children,? says Peninsula Superintendent Jim Coolican. ?We say it?s 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???

Dr. Sykes thought the Quakertown rash might be a mutation of the childhood illness known as fifth disease. Fifth disease got its name because it was once considered to be one of the five main childhood illnesses. It produces a low fever and cold-like symptoms, followed by a rash that creates a red-cheeked appearance and a lacy red rash on the trunk, arms and legs.

Although Sykes? patients had the right symptoms, a blood test turned up no evidence of the virus that causes fifth disease. Sykes then performed a more sophisticated test and found DNA evidence of the fifth disease virus, but nine other students still 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,? says infectious-disease expert Madeline Drexler.

Jim Scanlon thinks some of the rashes may be psychosomatic. And he claims some rashes were not rashes at all, but were caused when high school students rubbed themselves with sandpaper in an attempt to get the school shut down.

Keith Ruppel, the Quakertown father of a 10-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl, says, ?I really wish they could find the cause. But you can?t keep them out of school.?

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