The sudden death of a young boy in Baltimore on Nov. 30 alarmed his community and highlighted the potential dangers of common viruses.
Anthony Scott, 9, a third grader at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School in East Baltimore, Md., got sick over Thanksgiving. According to his mother, Lataye Scott, the boy was fine at the beginning of the holiday meal but became ill as it went on.
He became short of breath and had an asthma attack. Despite treatment at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, the boy died.
Blood tests showed that Anthony, who long suffered from asthma, had an adenovirus, a common, seasonal virus that can cause a range of ailments from a simple cold to diarrhea and pneumonia.
In response to Scott's death, his school, together with the Baltimore City Health Department, sent home a letter describing adenoviruses and their common symptoms as well as how proper hygiene and cough and sneeze etiquette can help prevent infection.
But the response from parents was not in keeping with the minimal threat of the virus.
"We've been getting hysteria," said Dr. Laura Herrera, Deputy Commissioner of Health for the Baltimore City Health Department. "Most parents aren't educated as far as what the names of the viruses are that cause the common cold."
Attempts to reach Lataye Scott were unsuccessful. Loren McCaskill, principal at Bernard Harris Elementary, declined to comment.
Though adenoviruses are common, a normal immune system is more than capable of fighting off any resulting infection. The virus is rarely fatal.
"Does this happen normally? No," said Dr. Ina Stephens, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children in Baltimore, Maryland, about Scott's death. "But every person's immune system handles adenovirus the way they're going to handle it."
Problems can arise in people whose immune systems are weakened in some way, by cancer, for example, diabetes or an existing HIV infection.
Stephens pointed out that long term, low dose steroid use -- often used as treatments for asthma -- can also compromise the immune system.
"Anybody who has an underlying condition... when a viral infection hits it wreaks havoc," Stephens said.
Herrera said there is no evidence to indicate that the adenovirus found in Scott's blood was a complication that contributed to his death.
But Scott's mother believed the opposite and even went to her son's school claiming that was where he caught the virus and that all the students should get tested for it, according to Herrera.
"It's an unfortunate situation for his mom," Herrera said. "She's distraught and looking for answers."
But Scott could have contracted the highly contagious virus anywhere, although the likelihood of getting it in populated places such as schools, day care centers, or on public transportation, are high.
While common viruses cannot be completely avoided, frequent and thorough hand washing, coughing and sneezing into a sleeve or a tissue, and staying home during an illness can help prevent germs from spreading.
The health department's letter to parents stated that "the school will enhance environmental cleaning of high-contact surfaces such as doorknobs, handrails, tables, and computer keyboards, which will also help prevent the spread of infections."
But, Stephens noted, adenovirus's ubiquity makes finger pointing useless.
"It's very difficult to keep your germs to yourself and most times these germs are completely benign," Stephens said. "There's no blame here. There can't be. This infection's all over the place."