Fleet surgeon spreads the facts about avian flu
YOKOSUKA, Japan — One hears a lot about “Force Protection” at Yokosuka Naval Base.
But neither barrier nor bulletproof vest will stop an onslaught of avian influenza — a potentially fatal virus found in birds and transmissible to people.
So Capt. Charles Baxter talks about “Force Health Protection.” As fleet surgeon for the U.S. 7th Fleet, Baxter leads an aggressive campaign against the disease and misinformation about it — which both are highly contagious.
“Diseases can kill you just as easily as bombs or bullets,” Baxter said Monday in his office aboard the USS Blue Ridge. “That’s not the typical mindset of our people. We want to tell people ‘Don’t be scared, but be aware.’”
Human cases of the virus, called “H5N1,” “avian flu” and “bird flu,” have popped up in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and China — places where 7th Fleet ships and personnel routinely visit.
“We have units going to these places all of the time,” Baxter said. “If not on ships, it’s active duty or dependents on temporary assignment or vacation.”
Baxter created briefs — updated every week — for the fleet medical personnel who treat Navy personnel. He is a month away from setting up a rapid detection laboratory to test for the disease. Seventh Fleet also is partnering with regional health care providers to monitor influenza diseases and share testing information.
The effort falls in line with President Bush’s three-pillar push for preparedness/communication, surveillance/detection and response/containment. The plan was announced in November after cases of the formerly Asian virus appeared in Europe.
To date, there have been 138 human cases of avian flu resulting in 71 deaths. People are still catching it only from birds, which keeps it from skyrocketing to pandemic levels, Baxter said.
“If the deadly influenza combines with an easily transmittable virus and mutates — that’s exactly what we want to avoid,” Baxter said. “By the time we realize it’s gotten to a pandemic level, exposure will be impossible to control.”
Past bouts with influenza killed people by the thousands. In 1918, Spanish Flu killed 500,000 in the United States and 50 million people worldwide. The Asian Flu of 1957-1958 killed 70,000 in the United States. The most recent pandemic was the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-1969, which killed 34,000 Americans.
While the numbers are grim, the trend of decreased fatalities is indicative of improved medical practices worldwide, Baxter said.
“In 1918 you could go in for a tooth extraction and not make it out,” Baxter said. “We’ve made tremendous medical progress since then.”
Now hospitals worldwide transmit information about Navy personnel, which helps with surveillance and detection, he said.
But now, with no known cases in the Defense Department, Baxter’s concentration is education.
“A lot of people aren’t getting the facts,” Baxter said.
For instance, not everyone dies from the bird flu — fatality runs about 50 percent. Tamiflu, an antiviral medication, doesn’t cure the disease and can’t be taken as a preventive measure. A vaccine for avian flu has yet to be invented and probably won’t be until the disease reaches pandemic state, Baxter said.
Some scientists say this is just a matter of time, Baxter said.
“It depends on who you talk to. Some statisticians say the pandemic will happen. Others say that maybe it won’t,” Baxter said. “Either way, we can’t just wait to find out. We’re preparing for it.”
Baxter will be featured on the January edition of Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka’s “Spotlight” television program.