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Aberdeen soldiers drawing lessons from Ebola deployment for Pentagon disease fighters

By Ian Duncan | The Baltimore Sun (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 6, 2016

Operating out of rapidly erected labs or in borrowed space in hospitals, a specialized Army team from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Liberia showed how quickly they could diagnose infection with the deadly Ebola virus.

Almost a year after that deployment, soldiers with the 1st Area Medical Laboratory are still combing over the experience, looking to share tips that might help the Army better respond to disease outbreaks in future.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Boggess said successfully going overseas and carrying out a significant mission has helped raise the profile of the unit within the military.

"The deployment got our name around a bit more," he said. "If something were to go down in the future, there's a reliable organization they can rely on."

The fight against Ebola last year was a new mission for the military, but the Department of Defense could be called on again to battle disease, and officials are searching for ways to spot potentially deadly epidemics earlier.

President Barack Obama directed Pentagon researchers last month to help take on the Zika virus, an outbreak the World Health Organisation has called a worldwide emergency.

The mosquito-borne disease, which has spread rapidly in Brazil, has been associated with serious birth defects. The Centers for Disease Control has issued travel warnings to almost two-dozen countries. The World Health Organisation said as many as 4 million people in the Western Hemisphere could be infected in the coming year, leading to fear of an epidemic more severe than the Ebola outbreak.

Researchers in Maryland played a key role in developing the Ebola vaccine, but the troops in the 1st Area Medical Laboratory had a much more hands-on role. Military doctors were able to rapdily confirm Ebola infections allowing patients to quickly get into treatment. The unit received an award last month recognizing its part in the campaign.

Col. Laura Elliott, the unit's leader, said that the mission to Liberia showed how her soldiers could work not only with military commanders but also other government agencies. The Superior Unit award recognizes her troops work, which she said in a statement "saved countless lives and helped stop the spread of Ebola."

Liberia and other West African nations were declared Ebola free in May 2015, after more than 28,500 people were infected and 11,000 people died. But the disease flared up again in the fall, and a smaller outbreak continued in Liberia until the middle of January, the World Health Organization said.

The medical unit is the Army's only deployable disease-detecting lab. It has also been sent to Afghanistan providing specialized aid to troops facing potential threats from disease, poisons and radiation.

Its two dozen soldiers are expected to be ready to head overseas within 14 days of getting orders.

The conditions in which they work can be very different from those experienced by an ordinary military lab technician, Boggess said, so the team prepares extensively.

"We have some of the most highly trained, intelligent soldiers that the Army has to offer," Boggess said.

Maj. Michael Backlund, a microbiologist, was based in Greenville, Liberia, a small port in the south that he called a "very austere location."

"We actually built a temp lab that would suit our needs so we could effectively and safely test whole blood samples," he said.

Within seven days of arriving in the country, his team was getting started on tests. Samples were rushed in on motorcycles and results sent back to treatment centers where doctors were working to treat people.

Because the virus is so infectious, soldiers labored in special environmentally controlled suits. They had to undergo a 21 day quarantine when they returned to the United States.

Backlund and Boggess said the mission to Liberia was a success, but the unit is still studying the deployment to determine anything that could be changed or improved. The soldiers are working to complete a detailed after-action report that commanders will use to plan future training and preparation.

The unit set up four testing labs across Liberia, with a team from the Navy running two other outfits.

Splitting into smaller groups was something new, Backlund said.

"We were able to show that we could effectively completely our mission by tailoring our team into four smaller teams," he said.

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©2016 The Baltimore Sun

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