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Mystery Illness Strikes Spokane Police Department Officers Fear It’s Outbreak Of Mononucleosis

Wed., May 24, 1995

About 15 Spokane police officers have been diagnosed with mononucleosis recently, spawning fears the illness is invading the department.

Police want the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate, believing it’s the second outbreak since the late 1980s, when dozens of officers became sick.

The problem with that assessment is that the CDC doctor who investigated the illnesses in 1989 said most of those officers did not have mononucleosis.

“By and large, it was an outbreak that just wasn’t,” said Peter Houck, a medical epidemiologist who led the investigation.

Many test results were misread, said Houck. He concluded five officers and two family members probably had acute infections of mononucleosis, while others had minor illnesses or simply were very tired.

Yet, Greg Nail, the Spokane doctor who diagnosed the cases, said mononucleosis appears to be making a comeback. “Most of these cases are apparent reactivations,” he said. “I don’t really know why.”

Known as “the kissing disease,” mononucleosis usually is spread through saliva rather than blood or air. Symptoms appear four to six weeks after infection.

When symptoms such as fever, sore throat, fatigue, and swollen glands persist for more than six months, the illness is usually described as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Houck said he doesn’t doubt that the officers suffered from fatigue during his 1989 investigation.

“I think they were really tired. But then it took on a life of its own. They were really worried and frightened. It kind of fed on itself, and then everyone thought they had mononucleosis.

“There was an awful lot of misinterpretation of lab results going on,” he said.

Some sick officers miss a few days of work, while others miss months, Lt. Larry Freeman said of the illness outbreaks.

“It happens so often, it’s no big deal anymore,” he said. “It does take people off the job, and it’s costly.”

Freeman was diagnosed with mononucleosis in 1989 and was sick for about two months. “I couldn’t even walk around the block,” he said. “I couldn’t even get out of bed.”

Chris Anderson, chairman of the police pension board, said he wants to find out what is making officers sick - even if it’s not mononucleosis.

“It’s really strange,” Anderson said. “It tells me something is going on inside there that maybe we need to know about.”

Six years ago, some police suspected the Public Safety building wasn’t properly ventilated, but tests ruled that out, said Assistant Police Chief David Peffer.

Even more perplexing, the mystery illness appears to affect only police officers, even though they share a building with sheriff’s deputies and courthouse employees, Peffer said.

In the late 1980s, officers became so ill a few missed months of work. Two officers retired, although one has since returned.

A few months ago, Spokane officers again began complaining of symptoms common with mononucleosis, said Nail.

About 10 have tested positive for the illness in the past few months, said Nail, and several other sick officers are seeing other doctors.

Overwork and stress can make people susceptible to mononucleosis, Nail noted.

“These guys are all stretched pretty thin,” he said. “Most of the shifts seem to be understaffed and a lot of them are having to work overtime.”

Diagnosing the disease can be tricky.

Nine of 10 adults carry antibodies to mononucleosis from previous infections, Houck said. When those antibodies show up, doctors may think it means an acute infection.

CDC investigators have checked a number of other reported outbreaks of mononucleosis, Houck said. They have yet to find one.

Diana Levin, city risk manager, said she doesn’t understand why police are falling sick. But she doesn’t see what police will gain by another CDC investigation.

Peffer, however, at least wants a Spokane County Health District epidemiologist to see whether there’s some sort of other illness spreading among police.

“We don’t want to lose our officers to an illness and not have any idea why it’s happening to us,” he said.

“I just don’t want it to happen again. And I sure as hell don’t want to get it myself.”


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