Tests show three fatal cases of meningococcal disease in Europe not related
Lab tests show the cases of meningococcal disease that recently killed three members of the U.S. military community in Germany within one week were unrelated, according to the European Regional Medical Command.
Three different strands of the disease killed Pvt. Dave Robbins, 20, a soldier with the 1st Infantry Division in Würzburg; Lindsey Ferris, 26, a civilian with the Spangdahlem Air Base Office of Special Investigation; and Kimberly Wesson, 23, the wife of a 1st ID soldier.
The lab results indicate that there is not an epidemic at hand, according to Dr. (Lt. Col.) William Corr, chief of preventive medicine at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and ERMC’s preventive medicine consultant.
“It’s not a new or more virulently dangerous germ that the community is exposed to that is being spread from person to person,” Corr said. “We don’t have a forest fire that we have to stomp out, but we do have to investigate it.”
No other cases of meningococcal disease are being treated by U.S. clinics in Germany, Corr said Tuesday. He said that was not surprising because meningococcal disease is not an easily spread disease, as measles or chicken pox are.
Instead, the germs that cause meningococcal disease are spread in droplets through the mouth and nose by direct and prolonged contact, such as kissing, or by the sharing of utensils or directly sneezing into someone’s face.
The disease is not transmitted through sexual activity, Corr said.
Robbins died on Jan. 28, Ferris on Jan. 29 and Wesson on Feb. 3. According to a press release from ERMC, Robbins died from Group B meningococcal septicaemia, while Ferris and Wesson died from nonidentical strands of Group C meningococcal meningitis. The tests were performed at a German laboratory in Würzburg.
Persons who had contact with the three victims have been given antibiotic pills, Corr said.
One of the primary symptoms of meningococcal disease is high fever accompanied by severe headache and stiff neck and shoulders, Corr said. Nausea and vomiting are also symptoms.
A number of patients have been treated for suspicious symptoms in recent days at U.S. clinics in Germany, Corr said, but none was diagnosed with meningococcal disease.
Meningococcal disease can be fatal in two ways, he said.
The disease attacks the meninges, the thin layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord, which can disable the brain and central nervous system.
The disease can also cause the blood to become abnormally thin as the body tries to fight off the infection, damaging the blood platelets that clog leaks and thus causing blood vessels to leak and blood pressure to fall.
Corr said January and February are normal months to see a higher incidence of meningococcal disease. As with the cold or flu, germs are more easily spread when people spend more time inside close to one another, and when windows are closed and ventilation is poor.
He said the same precautions that are taken to prevent the spread of cold or flu can be used to lessen the chances of spreading meningococcal disease, such as frequent hand-washing and sneezing onto the sleeve instead of the hand.
The ERMC on Tuesday could not provide historical data on the number of meningococcal cases within the U.S. military population in Germany. According to the German government, the annual occurrence of the disease in Germany is slightly less than one person in 100,000.
The primary agency that tracks meningococcal cases in Germany is the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin.
Since the beginning of the year — or just over five weeks — there have been at least 64 confirmed cases in Germany, according to Wiebke Hellenbrand, an epidemiologist with the institute. In the first six weeks of 2004 and 2005, there were 89 and 79 cases, respectfully.
So far, Hellenbrand said, there is no indication of anything strange afoot in Germany with respect to meningococcal disease.
It appears the deaths of the three Americans represent “an unlucky coincidence of cases,” she said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Dougherty contributed to this report.