A potentially lethal bacteria outbreak that has sent more than 100 Marine recruits to the hospital in California may have caused the death of an 18-year-old private.
The recruit, 18-year-old Pvt. Miguel "Mike" Zavala, died after seeking medical treatment for a rash on his left ankle. He was one of dozens of recruits at the Marine Corp's West Coast Recruiting Depot in Camp Pendleton who was hospitalized with symptoms of Streptococcus A, a bacteria that can cause a flesh-eating disease.
Zavala's family members say they believe his death may have been related to the recent outbreak of Strep A.
The Marine Corps has begun testing nearly 5,000 of its members at the base for the contagious disease and is treating them with antibiotics in hopes of stemming the spread of the disease.
But for the Zavalas, the action came too late.
"On Sunday we get a call saying he was taken in because of pneumonia, because his lungs were not working, that his heart was stopping," said Patty Ramirez, the victim's sister.
"We were on our way to San Diego when about an hour passed and they called us and we called the medical center to find out the status on my brother and all they said is sorry, he didn't make it," Ramirez told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
Zavala, 18, reported to the base clinic at 9:45 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15, along with 394 members of his training company for a routine medical check.
After Zavala was seen in the clinic, Marine officials said, doctors concluded the rash on his left ankle was serious enough to require attention at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. At the hospital, the rash quickly spread to the rest of his body and he started suffering pneumonia-like symptoms. By 1:01 p.m., Zavala was dead.
Zavala was the third recruit to die at the base in as many weeks. Officials said 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.
Ramirez says her brother called their mother Saturday, before he felt sick, to let her know that she should try not to worry about the two deaths on the base and to let her know that he was doing well.
Capt. John Malone, the hospital's medical services director, says the public was not at risk, and that every recruit on the base was getting a shot of penicillin to help confine the spread of Streptococcus A. Military doctors say the infection quickly spread among the recruits because of their close living arrangements and training conditions.
"We find this very much localized to the actual recruits," Malone said. "All the recruits are stationed and restricted to the base during their intensive recruit training times," he said.
Malone said Zavala's infection could have been Strep A or one of its equally dangerous cousins. The doctor added that preliminary autopsy results showed "no indication" Zavala had the flesh-eating strain of the bacteria and that the exact cause of death wouldn't be known until the final results of the autopsy were in.
Strep A is a bacteria that in its most common form of illness causes strep throat. In some very serious cases it can overwhelm the body until organs cease functioning.