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July 2, 2013

Health officials investigate unexplained hiccups in high schoolers

Mass. conducted air-quality tests, contacted physicians

DANVERS, Mass. — State health officials continue to quietly investigate what may have caused one to two dozen students to exhibit unexplained vocal tics or repetitive hiccups at Essex Agricultural and Technical School in Danvers and, to a lesser extent, North Shore Technical High in Middleton, this past school year.

The state is reaching out to more than 2,600 doctors in the region while investigating environmental factors that may have caused the symptoms, including air testing and visual observations inside school buildings. So far, according to a May 10 status report from the state Department of Public Health, air tests did not turn up anything that would contribute to “significant neurological effects.”

Danvers Health Director Peter Mirandi, in an update to the Board of Health on May 30, said the state is casting a wide net to gather information from doctors and their patients.

“They will be looking for correlations between the symptoms and the students,” Mirandi said. “The effort from the Department of Public Health is very thoughtful, deliberate, and I wouldn’t mind recognizing them for stepping up when we needed assistance.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Health had no update on the investigation.

“It’s a very extensive process, and there is no report that I have,” said Ann Roach, media relations manager for the state Department of Public Health.

In February, state public health officials met with parents of affected students, school officials and Danvers and Middleton health officials to learn more about their concerns.

In March, the Department of Public Health and the Board of Registration of Medicine sent letters to more than 2,600 “attending physicians, encompassing more than a dozen medical specialties” looking to see if any had treated patients with vocal tics or chronic hiccups from the two schools. The doctors were asked to discuss the state investigation with parents to see if they would consent to allow the state to obtain the patients’ medical records.

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