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Military Takes Steps Against Avian Flu
Stars and Stripes  |  By Sandra Jontz  |  October 13, 2005
Military health officials are stockpiling a vaccine and developing emergency plans to protect troops and their families from the deadly bird flu virus in the event of a human outbreak.

The U.S. European Command is developing a plan in response to a Pentagon directive, Army Maj. Steve Wollman, a EUCOM spokesman, said Wednesday. The command received the order last month, and emergency plan details have yet to be finalized, he said.

Troops and civilians deploying to war zones will be the first to be vaccinated with the normal flu vaccine, which health officials say can provide a layer of protection against other ailments.

The cases of humans contracting the deadly bird virus have put the Pentagon on alert, the Defense Department’s lead health official has said.

“This information, combined with what we know about influenza viruses and avian influenza viruses, gives us cause for concern for the possibility of a widespread outbreak of this virus in humans,” Dr. William Winkenwerder, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in an Oct. 6 Defense Department release.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed 65 people in four Asian nations since 2003. Dave Daigle, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said an avian flu vaccine is under development by the National Institute of Health, but has yet to go through human trials.

The Defense Department, which does not have to undergo the same Food and Drug Administration testing system, already has an experimental vaccine and has begun its own testing, according to Marianne Coates, a defense department health official.

She said Pentagon officials are working to eventually stockpile between 2 million and 20 million doses of the vaccine for military use. Winkenwerder said that would only be used in the event of an outbreak.

While unusual for humans to contract the avian flu, the virus seems to be spread through exposure to sick birds, bird feces, uncooked poultry and contaminated surfaces. The virus has killed or forced the destruction of tens of millions of chickens, ducks and geese across Asia and might have been discovered in birds in Turkey over the weekend.

DOD ordered combatant commands to develop emergency plans akin to those developed when Pacific Command faced the occurrence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003.

A portion of the emergency plan for the flu virus includes having hospital personnel isolate patients with flulike symptoms in a “negative pressure isolation room,” wearing protective clothing and gear, and testing patients for influenza A, according to military health officials.

Reported symptoms of avian flu in humans have ranged from typical influenzalike symptoms, such as high fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches, to eye infections, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, and other severe and life-threatening complications, according to the CDC Web site.

One way to help protect oneself is to avoid contact with possibly infected fowl, wash hands frequently and get a flu shot.

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