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Army officials rebut rumors of more meningitis cases on FLW
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Feb. 28, 2009) — One week after post officials said there were 36 cases of pneumonia on Fort Leonard Wood, that number has almost doubled.

However, General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital officials said Friday that no more of those pneumonia cases have developed into meningitis, and they caution that the current illnesses on post should be considered a “cluster” rather than an “outbreak.”

It’s not clear how the pneumonia has been transmitted, but hospital officials said they don’t believe the mess halls are the means by which transmission happened. Post officials conduct regular safety inspections to guard against foodborne disease, and hospital officials say they haven’t had any cases of salmonella, one of the most common causes of food poisoning, since February 2008.

Despite widespread rumors of more infections, Fort Leonard Wood spokesman Mike Alley confirmed Thursday that there were “zero cases” of meningitis on Fort Leonard Wood and said there have been no more cases since two trainees died of bacterial meningitis and one civilian nurse was infected with an unrelated strain of viral meningitis.

That nurse worked in the consolidated troop medical clinic where the two trainees who died of meningitis had been taken for treatment. However, hospital officials said the nurse’s illness was the viral rather than bacterial form of meningitis, and could not have been caught from the trainees. The nurse sought treatment at Lake Regional Medical Center in Osage Beach and has since been discharged, according to post officials.

Despite the geographical proximity, post officials have said they can find no connection between any of the three Fort Leonard Wood cases and a Camdenton High School student who was also diagnosed with meningitis.

One trainee, Pvt. 2nd Class Randy L. Stabnik of South Bend, Ind., died Feb. 17 at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield of complications from a strep pneumonia infection leading to a non-contagious complication of meningitis. Another soldier from the same unit, Company A of the 554th Engineers, died Feb. 9 in what Lt. Col. John Lowery, the post hospital’s medical director, called a case of “lightning striking twice.” The family of the soldier who died Feb. 9 has requested that his name not be released.

The 554th Engineer Battalion is an advanced individual training unit at Fort Leonard Wood that prepares people who have just finished basic training to become Army heavy equipment operators.

Col. Tommy Mize, commander of the 1st Engineer Brigade that supervises the 554th Engineers, said during a press conference and town hall meeting last week that there were 36 cases of pneumonia on the entire installation, 20 of which were in Company A and Company H of the 554th Engineer Battalion. The two trainees in Company A who were infected with streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria had their illness rapidly progress in less than a day to become fatal cases of bacterial meningitis. One had an ear infection that included a perforated esrdrum; the other had previously been diagnosed with bronchitis and had stopped taking his medication before finishing the allotted dosage.

Those two fatalities prompted what Army officials called an aggressive response that included bringing in officials with the Centers for Disease Control to determine if what Lowery called “lightning striking twice” was actually something more serious.

In last week’s press conference, Dr. Fatimah Dawood of the Centers for Disease Control said the specific strain of bacterial meningitis that hit the two trainees is common and usually results in nothing more serious than flu-like symptoms.

“Streptococcus pneumoniae can be spread person-to-person through droplets of mucous from the mouth or throat. This bacteria lives in the back of people’s noses and for many people with the bacteria, they have no symptoms of illness at all,” Dawood said. “However, for reasons that we do not fully understand, some people do become sick and develop meningitis caused by this bacteria. This meningitis is not as contagious as the common cold or the flu, and it cannot be spread by simply breathing air in a room that a person with meningitis has been in.”

While there have been no more meningitis cases, the number of reported pneumonia cases has significantly increased. As of Feb. 19, post officials said more than half of the post’s 36 pneumonia cases involved trainees in the two affected companies of the 554th Engineer Battalion, but said none of the 20 affected servicemembers were cadre, a military term for drill sergeants, instructors, and other trainers.

On Feb. 19 and 20, hospital officials vaccinated 303 trainees in Company A and more than 200 in Company H against the streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria in an effort to stamp out the disease cluster affecting the unit. Cadre were not initially vaccinated, but hospital officials later decided to vaccinate cadre members as well as the trainees.

Hospital officials said as of Feb. 27, the number of reported pneumonia cases had risen to 71, including the 20 from Company A and Company H.

“Due to the interventions taken, there have been no additional cases of pneumonia reported in the Alpha and Hotel Companies,” hospital officials said in a written statement responding to a Pulaski County Daily News media inquiry.

An additional disease report was initially thought to be linked to the Fort Leonard Wood meningitis cluster and announced at last week’s press conference.

A member of the Florida National Guard who had recently graduated from advanced individual training with the 554th Engineer Battalion checked into a Florida hospital with severe symptoms that doctors feared might be meningitis. Tests for meningitis turned out to be negative and he’s been diagnosed instead with severe bronchitis, General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital officials said, noting that he has since been released from the Florida hospital.

General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital officials cautioned that seeing higher numbers of reported illness doesn’t necessarily mean more people are getting sick. It could simply mean more people are reporting their sickness to their doctors.

“Please note that the heightened medical awareness of everyone on Fort Leonard Wood encouraged people to seek medical attention when they may not have ordinarily done so,” hospital officials said. “This allowed the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital staff to catch and treat more cases.”

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