Death of Wales toddler blamed on Reye's syndrome

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state medical examiner says a four-year-old girl from the Seward Peninsula village of Wales apparently died of Reye's syndrome.

Louise Inez Tokeinna died Saturday in the village after coming down with the flu. Villagers had feared a contagious disease may have caused her death, but doctors have now ruled it out.

Reye's syndrome is a rare disease that develops most commonly in children recovering from viral illnesses like influenza or chicken pox, said Dr. Franc Fallico, acting chief state medical examiner, who performed an autopsy on the girl's body Monday. Only 17 cases have been reported in Alaska since 1972.

Further tests are pending, but Fallico said Reye's syndrome is most likely to blame. If confirmed, Louise's death would be the first reported case of Reye's in Alaska since 1990. It's unclear whether anyone has previously died from Reye's syndrome in Alaska.

The little girl's death raised old fears in the small Inupiat village. Wales was devastated by diseases in the early 1900s, most notably during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. More than half of the villagers died withing a couple of weeks in late 1918.

Reye's was discovered in 1963. It affects the body's organs, especially the brain and liver. Medical experts have yet to nail down its cause.

Reye's often begins to occur as the person is recovering from an illness. Abnormal accumulations of fat start to develop in the liver and other organs, with a severe increase of pressure in the brain, according to the National Reye's Syndrome Foundation.

Death can result within just a few days if left untreated.

Some research has found a link between Reye's syndrome and the use of aspirin to treat flulike symptoms in children, though Fallico said he is unsure whether aspirin played a role in Louise's death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not giving aspirin products to children younger than 19 suffering from fever-causing illnesses. Since 1980, when the link between aspirin and Reye's was first made, there's been a sharp decline in reported cases.

At its peak in 1980, 555 cases in the United States were reported to the CDC. By 1997, only one or two cases were reported a year, according to a New England Journal of Medicine article in 1999.

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