Needle jabbing sparks a panic

13th May 2005 at 01:00

HIV misdiagnosis after eight-year-old prank leads to pupils taking retroviral drugs. Stephen Phillips reports

A Philadelphia school was plunged into chaos after an eight-year-old jabbed 23 classmates with her mother's diabetic testing needle and one child later tested positive for HIV.

The diagnosis was later declared a false-positive. But the test result set off a wave of panic at Bayard Taylor elementary school and prompted worried doctors to place all the affected students on a powerful cocktail of retroviral drugs that left some vomiting and nauseous.

A substitute teacher, who some parents allege ignored student cries that they had been pricked with the needle, was under investigation and was "reassigned to administrative duties" last week, officials said.

"The allegations are that she told them to sit down," said Philadelphia schools spokesman Fernando Gallard. Disciplinary action, if any, will be considered, pending the outcome of the probe.

Staff are still trying to piece together what happened on April 27, when a student brought into school a needle used by her diabetic mother to measure her blood sugar. The incident began either at the school's breakfast sitting or possibly at lunchtime, according to varying accounts, Mr Gallard said.

It is thought that the girl was playing with the needle. "We're dealing with eight-year-olds," said Mr Gallard. "Being curious, others probably decided to take part."

In most cases the needle did not even draw blood but left a red mark on the skin.

Staff initially identified 14 children struck by the needle after one alerted a school police officer. These pupils were interviewed by the school nurse before being taken to hospital later that afternoon.

But the school came in for criticism from parents for not acting more quickly.

After determining there was no immediate danger, officials waited to get parental consent before ferrying pupils to hospital, and most did not receive medical attention until school was over, Mr Gallard said.

Meanwhile, it took a day of classroom enquiries to round up all the students who had been pricked, many of whom had thought nothing of it.

It was an emotional rollercoaster for parents and staff, Mr Gallard said.

When the positive HIV reading came through,"it was like our worst nightmare came true".

The pupils were immediately prescribed an assortment of anti-HIV drugs, the side-effects of which are sickness and nausea, and Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas addressed a highly-charged meeting with parents at the school.

The education authority laid on counselling for students, parents and staff, assigned each family a local public health official as their case officer, and pledged to compensate parents for lost work time and medical costs.

After the initial HIV diagnosis on the student was overturned following a second, more comprehensive test, parents remained upset and confused, Mr Gallard said, and support services were being maintained indefinitely.

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