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Marines probe recruit's death

From Barbara Starr

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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Physical training has been suspended for 72 hours at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, while officials investigate whether an 18-year-old recruit who died while being treated for an acute rash may have had Strep A, a rare but very serious bacterial infection.

Officials are still awaiting autopsy results for Pvt. Miguel Zavala, who went to the medical clinic Sunday morning with a rash on his left ankle. Hours later, the rash had spread to the rest of his body, and Zavala died at 1 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) while being treated at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.

Zavala had completed 23 days of training as a Marine.

"Yesterday's sudden death was most certainly a bacterial infection," said Capt. John Malone, the director of medical services at the hospital and an infectious disease doctor. "The streptococcal bacteria that we are aggressively pursuing is a possible cause of this unusual presentation."

Malone said Zavala's case is "very consistent" with Strep A, but doctors are considering other types of infections as well. There is no evidence of meningitis or necrotizing fasciitis -- also known as flesh-eating bacteria -- as a cause of Zavala's death, he said.

Last week, staff members at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot noticed an increase in carriers of Group A streptococcal pneumonia -- more commonly known as Strep A -- as well as a number of recruits showing up with symptoms of it, said Maj. Gen. Jan Huly, the depot's commanding officer.

An investigation revealed a "higher-than-normal incidence" of Strep A at the depot, so Sunday, doctors inoculated all 5,000 of the recruits and their supervisory personnel with a type of penicillin or other antibiotic, Marine Corps spokesmen said.

There is no vaccine for Strep A.

As of Monday, some 50 people were being treated for bacterial infections, and most are improving with antibiotics, Malone said.

The only person so far to have a confirmed case of Strep A is in critical condition in the hospital, Malone said. That person has pneumonia and does not have any problems on his skin, such as a rash, Malone said.

Strep A can cause different types of infections, either in the throat or on the skin.

Malone said streptococcal infections are transmitted with close contact and thrive in the close quarters in which the Marines train and live.

Two other Marine recruits have died at the training base since November 23, but Huly and Malone said those deaths were not related to Strep A.

One collapsed on an obstacle course and died of sudden cardiac arrest, Malone said. The other died after advanced swimming exercises of pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs; Malone said the man had recently had a cold which might have been a factor.

Before the recent deaths, the last recruit to have died at the depot was in 1998. Now, with three deaths in the course of a few weeks, Huly said officials are "concerned" but feel they have the situation under control.

"These are the treasure of the United States of America," he said of Marine recruits. "Mothers don't send their sons to the Marine Corps and expect them to become casualties in recruit training. ... We take every one of those deaths personally, as if there was some way we could have prevented it. And we're going to find a way we can prevent it."

Huly said during the suspension of physical training, instead of running obstacle courses or doing swim qualifications, for instance, recruits will have classroom training instead.

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