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27 children killed, 100 sickened in Philippines

Victims believed poisoned by root

MANILA -- Wailing parents carried the bodies of their children from hospitals after a snack of cassava -- a root that is poisonous if not prepared correctly -- killed 27 and sickened 100 others yesterday at an elementary school in the south-central Philippines.

With the nearest hospital 20 miles away from San Jose school, in Bohol Island's Mabini town, some victims died while being carried in a variety of vehicles, including three-wheel motorcycle taxis.

Francisca Doliente said her 9-year-old niece, Arve Tamor, was given some of the deep-fried caramelized cassava by a classmate who bought it from a vendor outside the school.

''Her friend is gone. She died," Doliente said. Her niece was being treated, she said.

The roots of the cassava plant, a major crop in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, are rich in protein, minerals, and vitamins A, B, and C. However, cassava is poisonous unless it is peeled and thoroughly cooked. If it is eaten raw or prepared incorrectly, one of its chemical constituents will be attacked by digestive enzymes and give off the deadly poison cyanide. As little as two cassava roots can contain a fatal dose.

''Some said they took only two bites because it tasted bitter, and the effects were felt five to 10 minutes later," said Dr. Harold Gallego of Garcia Memorial Provincial Hospital in the nearby town of Talibon, where 47 patients were taken.

Mabini Mayor Stephen Rances said 27 students were confirmed dead. The victims suffered severe stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. They were taken to at least four hospitals from the school in Mabini, about 380 miles southeast of the capital, Manila.

Sobbing parents left hospitals carrying the bodies of their children wrapped in blankets.

Some victims were still vomiting nearly 12 hours after eating the morning snack, said Dr. Nenita Po of the government-run Governor Celestino Gallares Memorial Hospital. However, those who were alive when they reached the hospital had a good chance of surviving, Po said.

Po said some worried parents brought in their children even if they did not show any symptoms of poisoning.

Grace Vallente said her 7-year-old nephew, Noel, died en route to the hospital and that her 9-year-old niece, Roselle, was undergoing treatment.

''There are many parents here," she said from L. G. Cotamura Community Hospital in Bohol's Ubay town. ''The kids who died are lined up on beds. Everybody's grief-stricken."

Dr. Leta Cutamora confirmed 14 dead at the hospital and 35 admitted for treatment.

Po said 15 patients were brought there, including the 68-year-old woman who prepared the cassava along with another woman. Officials wanted to talk with the ailing woman, but said she was complaining of pain.

A specimen of the cassava was taken for inspection at the local Crime Laboratory Group.

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