Deadly bacteria infection overwhelmed MCRD recruit

      By Jeanette Steele

      December 24, 2002

      The Marine recruit who died Dec. 15 had an overwhelming meningococcal bacteria infection, which is different from the streptococcus A that infected 185 other recruits and hospitalized many of them with pneumonia last week, military officials said yesterday.

      No one else at the 5,000-person Marine Corps Recruit Depot has shown symptoms or been diagnosed with a meningococcal infection, said Capt. John Malone, medical services director at Naval Medical Center San Diego.

      It was purely chance that the two separate bacteria - meningococcal and strep A - hit the recruit population at the same time, Malone said.

      Officials discount the possibility of bio-terrorism. "It is an absolute coincidence," Malone said. "This has just been an unfortunate chain of events."

      Other members of Pvt. Miguel Zavala's platoon received a special oral antibiotic the day he died that should safeguard them against the bacteria, Malone said.

      That precautionary measure was taken because doctors suspected, and now have confirmed, that a meningococcal infection was one of two possible causes.

      Doctors saw no need to give the antibiotic, called levofloxacin, to all 4,500 recruits and the depot staff because no one else showed symptoms of the rapid-moving infection that killed Zavala within hours, Malone said.

      Recruits in other platoons and the public are not at risk because the bacteria is only spread to others in the same living area, he said. Zavala, a 18-year-old recruit from Greenfield, never left the base after arriving.

      "You have to be in the same household," Malone said. "You don't get it by just walking across the parade ground."

      All recruits entering MCRD are vaccinated against the meningococcal bacteria, which usually affects young people. Still, Malone said the vaccine isn't always effective, as in Zavala's case.

      One recruit remains in critical condition from the strep A-related pneumonia outbreak that hit the depot the week before Zavala's death. More than 126 people were hospitalized with pneumonia, though not all were related to strep A, officials have said.

      Doctors tested 2,700 MCRD personnel and 185 were found with the strep A bacteria, though not all became sick.

      Two recruits with non-strep pneumonia were admitted to the hospital over the weekend. Seven MCRD personnel are hospitalized there with various ailments, said Doug Sayers, a San Diego Navy hospital spokesman.