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Thursday, February 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Girl, 7, with flu dies; 300 out sick, high school closes

Seattle Times staff reporters

A 7-year-old Kent girl has died of a rare complication of influenza and a private Seattle high school has closed for the rest of the week as the flu season reaches its peak, public-health officials say.

Bishop Blanchet High School in North Seattle announced that it won't reopen until Monday because more than 300 of the Catholic school's 1,080 students have called in sick this week, mostly with flu symptoms.

In Kent, Sarah Horner, a second-grader at Lake Youngs Elementary School east of the city, died Monday of inflammation of the heart, a rare complication of the flu, the King County Medical Examiner's Office reported. She is the first King County child under 15 to die of flu complications since 1999, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.

Public Health officials said, however, the current flu strain is not more virulent than usual. And flu levels are not higher than expected.

"What we're seeing is typical of past seasons," said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Public Health director of communicable-disease control. "It's peaking now and will be with us for several more weeks, probably into spring."

He said, however, that he could not recall a school being closed in recent history because of the flu.

Duchin said 32 King County schools have reported absenteeism of 10 percent or higher, though some of those absences may be because of other illnesses or reasons. School attendance is watched as a rough gauge of the flu levels, along with reports from a sampling of clinics.

Some school officials said they have implemented measures to disinfect and thoroughly clean classrooms when many students are out with the disease.

Duchin said the complication that killed Horner is myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. The condition can slow the heart's pumping action and cause blood clots that can lead to strokes or heart attacks.

School officials said counselors have been helping Horner's classmates at Lake Youngs Elementary cope with the news.

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Meanwhile, at Bishop Blanchet High School, Principal Kent Hickey said he decided to close the school when the absentees went from 170 Monday to more than 300 Wednesday.

"We decided if we could keep the students away from each other for four days, maybe most would be healthy again," he said.

The school was scheduled to be closed Friday anyway, except for a freshman retreat, but that, too, is now canceled. Instead, the school will hold online classes, or a "virtual school," as Hickey called it.

Part of the reason for setting up such an online system was in preparation for an epidemic or other disaster in which students would need to stay home.

"That's the only silver lining to this [outbreak]," Hickey said. "We'll be able to check this system out thoroughly."

Statewide, flu levels still appear to be normal or below normal, said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the State Department of Health.

Duchin said it is still not too late to receive a flu shot and be protected. Many private physicians have the vaccine, and it is also available at Public Health clinics, he said.

In a typical year in the United States, only about 100 children die of flu complications, compared to 36,000 adults. This season at least seven other children in the country have died of the disease.

Times staff reporters Alex Fryer, Judy Chia Hui Hsu and Rachel Tuinstra contributed to this report.

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com

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