Conjunctivitis outbreak limited to Fort Benning’s training population

By Reginald Rogers, Martin Army Community Hospital PAO /

With a recent outbreak of conjunctivitis, health officials at Fort Benning are urging the community to take proper precautions to ensure this infection does not spread further throughout the community.

Conjunctivitis, or “pink eye,” as it is commonly called, is a highly contagious condition that causes irritation of the conjunctiva, the thin clear tissue that covers the white part of the eye and the lines inside the eyelid.

Since the beginning of July, there have been more than 151 cases of conjunctivitis among trainees here, including 71 new cases between July 1-8.

Under normal circumstances, officials at Martin Army Community Hospital say the best way to prevent getting the condition would be to ensure that your hands are clean before making physical contact with food products or other individuals.

According to Dr. Scott Robinson, chief of preventive medicine at MACH, this strain is known as nontypeable haemophilus influnzae.

Robinson explained that the virus has been passed throughout the F companies in the training brigades more than other units. He attributed that to the fact that these are cohort units, or units that cohabitate together throughout the entire training cycle. He said other companies were affected, but there were considerably more cases of conjunctivitis among cohort units. Robinson also explained that the F companies were located in a separate cantonment area than the other units, which probably kept the virus from spreading more rapidly to other units.

Robinson said they initially focused on the Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear and Explosives training that the prospective Soldiers must undergo, but it was determined that the gas chamber was not the causing factor.

“We were worried about the gas chamber, but that’s probably not it, considering that only about 30 percent actually participated in CBRNE, as well as combatives. However, there were a significant number of trainees who participated in CBRNE or combatives while having runny eyes,” Robinson explained.

“The question is, do you really want to share a protective mask with someone who has a runny eye? No, you do not,” he added. Robinson said the Preventive Medicine team has asked the training cadre and population to discontinue the shared protective masks to mitigate the possibility of spreading the conjunctivitis virus.

That includes almost 13 percent of the people that we surveyed, who have participated in one of these two activities while actually sick,” Robinson said. “So we want to prevent people from participating in these two “rubbing your face on each other” activities, whether in the mask or directly during combatives.”

He added that a common denominator among units that had a high population infected with conjunctivitis appeared to be food delivered by the unit to the field, known as unit pick-up chow.

“Lots of people participated in UPU chow in the week prior to their illness,” he pointed out. “About 75 percent of the units picked up chow at the DFAC and brought it back to either a field environment or to the company training area. You would think they would’ve washed their hands, but that is not what was reported.”

Robinson said most of those who transported the food reported that they only used hand sanitizer gel instead of properly washing their hands with soap and water.

“Hand gel does not appear to kill this (strain of conjunctivitis,)” he explained. “Everyone said they used hand gel, but if you ask, did they wash their hands at UPU, or if there was a hand-washing station available, there was only 10 percent with the appropriate answer. So, approximately 90 percent of the people not washing their hands before they all get into the same line to eat presents a problem with hand-to-mouth-to-hand diseases.”

He also reiterated that individuals should not be allowed to share protective masks or participate in combatives if they are sick or show symptoms of conjunctivitis. And lastly, units should use effective cleansers in their common areas, he said.

Robinson explained that combatives is also a source of MRSA transfer.

“(Combatives) is a known high-contact, high-risk activity for disease transfer and we should not allow people to participate while sick, whether because of respiratory illness or through facial contact,” he said.

The possibility of transferring the illness is concerning, but it doesn’t explain the outbreak because only 32 and 25 percent of the people surveyed had used the gas chamber or participated in combatives, he added.

Robinson said they also looked into other possible sources of contraction, but didn’t find anything significant.

“The (dining facility) hygiene looked pretty good. People were washing their hands and they had paper towels and soap available. They actually get better access to soap than they do hand gel,” he explained.

“We recommended that they wipe down high contact areas, such as door knobs, push plates and counters that everyone touches with something effective such as bleach solution or Clorox wipes. I do not recommend Cidex cleanser like we use here in the hospital because it is a carcinogen, and hand gel does not appear to work,” Robinson said.

Any community member experiencing irritations and inflammation, which cause their eyes to appear light red along with a clear discharge, should seek immediate medical attention.

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