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Strep Outbreak At Marine Base

Officials at one of the nation's two main Marine Corps training centers are trying to contain an outbreak of a potentially lethal bacteria that has sent more than 100 recruits to the hospital and possibly killed an 18-year-old private.

The outbreak of Strep A that began at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot last week prompted the base to suspend all strenuous physical activity for 3,000 recruits until at least Thursday, when the men's health will be reevaluated.

Maj. Gen. Jan Huly, the depot's commanding officer, said Monday he ordered the 72-hour physical training suspension to prevent more recruits and instructors from overexerting themselves and getting sick.

"Let's give them a chance. ... I would rather err on the side of safety," Huly said.

The action came less than 24 hours after Pvt. Miguel Zavala died of an as-yet unspecified bacterial infection hours after he sought treatment for a rash that quickly spread from his ankle to the rest of his body.

Zavala's was the third recruit to die at the base in as many weeks, although officials say the deaths were unrelated.

Pvt. Neal Edwards, 18, of St. Clair, Mo., died Nov. 24 of a heart ailment after completing an obstacle course, and Pvt. Samuel J. Bruss, 19, of Kenosha, Wis., died Thursday when his lungs filled with fluid during survival training at the base swimming pool, officials said.

Since the Strep A outbreak was identified, more than 100 people from the depot have been admitted to the Navy Regional Medical Center, many suffering from pneumonia and other respiratory ailments that can mimic the bacterial infection's symptoms.

One drill instructor and 49 recruits remained hospitalized Monday, with one recruit in "very, very critical condition" with a confirmed Strep A infection, said Capt. John Malone, the hospital's medical services director.

Zavala's infection could have been Strep A or one of its equally dangerous cousins, Malone said, noting that the exact cause of death won't be known until autopsy results are available.

Strep A is a bacteria that in its most common form of illness causes strep throat. But in extreme cases it can simply overwhelm the body until organs cease functioning. It can also cause necrotizing fasciitis, a deadly flesh-eating disease.

Malone said preliminary autopsy results showed "no indication" Zavala had the flesh-eating strain of the bacteria.

Even before Zavala's death, Marine officials decided to inoculate about 3,500 recruits and instructors with antibiotics Sunday as a precaution. Malone said they would continue to receive weekly penicillin shots and tests as long as the threat of contagion continued.

And even though the outbreak appears to be limited to three platoons that arrived in San Diego within the last month, another thousand or so senior recruits training at nearby Camp Pendleton will also receive antibiotics, Huly said.

The ban on strenuous activity at the recruit depot means the men will not run, swim, tackle obstacle courses or practice martial arts until at least Thursday, when base officials will reevaluate their health.

Huly said he stopped short of ordering a complete "stand down" that would have ceased all training at the base in part because doctors assured him the strep outbreak appears confined to the recruits.

"We've got a problem. We're on top of it. It is communicable and contagious, but in order to do that you have to be living in close proximity with a recruit," he said.

The San Diego recruit depot is one of two bases used to train new Marines. The other is in Parris Island, S.C.

Huly said that while the string of deaths has caused concern among his recruits, morale remains high and the fear quotient low.

"These recruits here, you just have to remember what their primary motivation is. It probably isn't self and security. If it was, they probably wouldn't have joined the Marines in the first place," he said.

As their commander, though, Huly said that losing three recruits in less than a month has been difficult.

"Are we concerned? You betcha," he said. "These are the treasure of the United States of America. Mothers don't send their sons to the Marine Corps and expect them to become casualties in recruit training."

By Lisa Leff