Two more illnesses tied to Fort Leonard Wood Army base

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. | Two more people with ties to Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood Army base appear to have meningitis, raising more concerns at the base where two soldiers have died this month from the disease.

Both soldiers died of a bacterial form of the illness. Speaking Thursday first at a news conference and then at a community forum, base officials said they had just learned of two additional cases.

A male nurse on the base was diagnosed with viral meningitis, but responded well to treatment and was expected to be released soon from an off-base hospital, said Lt. Col. John Lowery, the base medical director.

Also, a Florida National Guard soldier who trained at Fort Leonard Wood became ill after returning to Florida and was hospitalized Wednesday. His name was not released. Lowery said that soldier's symptoms are consistent with meningitis, but it was too early to confirm the disease or know if it was bacterial or viral.

"He's not in critical condition — he's awake and stable," Lowery told about 250 people at the forum, mostly soldiers and civilians who work on the base.

The deaths of the two soldiers shook this sprawling base in rural mid-Missouri.

The first soldier died Feb. 9 of pneumococcus meningitis. He was 23 and from Alabama, but his name was not released.

Pvt. Randy Stabnick, 28, of South Bend, Ind., died Tuesday at a hospital in Springfield of the same form of bacterial meningitis.

Both soldiers lived on the same floor of the same barracks, and both were members of the 1st Engineering Brigade of the 554th Engineers Battalion.

Base officials are puzzled that two soldiers came down with the same disease. They said pneumococcus meningitis is essentially non-contagious because the bacteria that cause it are common, but only four or five out of 100,000 people with the bacteria develop meningitis.

Epidemiologists from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were brought in to investigate, and they recommended vaccinations and preventive antibiotics for all of the 500-plus soldiers in the same company as the two men who died. About 300 soldiers were vaccinated Wednesday, and the rest were being vaccinated on Thursday.

"We realize there are many people anxious, worried and with questions about what is being done," CDC Dr. Fatimah Dawood said.

Meningitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The viral form is generally less severe. Bacterial meningitis can result in brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability and death.

Fort Leonard Wood officials confirmed that the nurse who became ill worked in the clinic that treated the two men who died.

The Florida National Guard soldier came to the Missouri base for training and graduated Feb. 6, then returned to Florida and developed symptoms consistent with meningitis. But three early spinal taps to diagnose the illness were negative for bacterial meningitis. Lowery said that could mean the disease is viral, or it could simply be too early for diagnosis.

A spokesman for the Florida National Guard did not know specifically where the man is hospitalized.

About 30,000 people are on base daily at Fort Leonard Wood. That includes thousands of soldiers and trainees, but it also includes thousands of civilian workers, spouses and children of soldiers.

At the community forum, many people asked about symptoms for their husbands, their children. Some wondered if vaccines shouldn't be normal protocol. Some wondered if there was something in the barracks that caused the bacteria.

Officials said the vaccine simply isn't given to otherwise healthy people. They said there appeared to be nothing unusual about the barracks.

Amanda Cotton, 26, a police officer on the base, said her 2-year-old daughter had pneumonia about a month ago, but now appears to be OK. Still, the base illnesses have her concerned.

"I'm very worried because she's 2 — I can't tell if she has a stiff neck," Cotton said. "She goes to the child development center here on base. Little kids are together. It would be so easy to spread."

Lowery and Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, the base commander, said every effort is being made to educate soldiers and others about steps to reduce their risk — practice good hygiene, don't share food and drink, get plenty of rest, eat healthy.

There is a strain of bacterial meningitis that is highly contagious — meningococcal meningitis — both no one at Fort Leonard Wood has been diagnosed with that strain, CDC and base officials said.

Dawood said the pneumococcus bacteria spreads only through droplets of mucous from the mouth or throat. And even if spread, the risk of developing meningitis is extremely low, she said.

"It is not as contagious as the common cold or flu and it cannot be spread simply by breathing air in a room a person with meningitis has been in," she said.