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BAGHDAD, Iraq — People might be out there trying to kill you — but don’t forget to floss.

And be sure to wash your hands.

That advice for troops in Iraq from two medical officers with the 1st Armored Division is not as incongruous as it sounds. While car bombs get attention, soldiers in Iraq are more at risk of disease caused by poor personal hygiene.

And, unlike the mad bombers or those who put explosives on roads, the disease is something each soldier can keep at bay.

“When people are focused on the next terrorist — the next car bomb — they forget that the thing that is more likely to hurt their soldiers on a mass scale is a disease outbreak,” said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Mark Harris, deputy division surgeon and preventive medicine officer.

He said good health is a force-protection issue. No soldier wants to be guarded by colleagues who are ill, distracted by painful athlete’s foot or have eye infections that affect their vision.

Harris and Capt. Chris Johnson, environmental science officer, said they tell troops that a simple thing such as washing hands is part of force protection. Diseases can be transmitted easily from the hand, they said, so keeping those hands clean is vital.

“Out here it’s so important,” Johnson said. “That’s the No. 1 thing we stress, and we really stay on them.”

Harris said the division arrived with 32,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. Hand washing stations are now ubiquitous at camps.

Deployed soldiers easily forget routines from home that include good hygiene and healthy living. The two said they try to make senior leaders aware of that so they can keep an eye on soldiers who might develop bad habits.

Harris said aid stations see plenty of skin problems. Part of the problem is the heat, but good hygiene can prevent some ailments. While he admits that is difficult in an environment as dusty as Iraq, he says it can be done. In fact, it must be done.

Johnson said using pre-moistened towels known as “baby wipes” to clean armpits, the groin area and feet can stop a world of problems from cropping up.

One serious problem is athlete’s foot. “It can be painful. When you’re out here, feet are everything,” said Harris. “You’ve got to be mobile.”

Athlete’s foot fungus lives in warm, moist places such as between toes. It also lives in shower stalls. The same fungus can infect the groin area, when it is commonly known as “jock itch.”

“That’s why we preach to them: completely dry your feet and groin,” Johnson said. “It’s tough to get rid of it.”

Neither Harris nor Johnson is a dentist, but they said dental problems crop up in long deployments like this one, which for many will reach 12 months, twice the time recommended between dental visits.

“It’s just as basic as it sounds,” Johnson said. “Make sure you’re brushing your teeth twice a day and floss at least once a day. Those little miscues of not brushing and not flossing can really add up [on a long deployment].”

Eyes, too, can take a beating in the desert environment.

“We’ve had, let’s just say, our fair share of eye injuries,” Harris said.

He said the culprits are the “deadly duo” of dust and contact lenses. In this desert, he said, it is impossible to keep dust from getting under the lenses, where it can scratch the eye or lead to eye infections.

“Do not wear your contact lenses,” he said as a mantra. “Use glasses instead.”

Other common health problems the pair say troops should be aware of:

• Diet plays a big role in the health of soldiers. It’s easy to skip a meal in the hectic rush of the day and rely on sugar-laden candies instead of a balanced meal served at the dining facility, Harris said as he pulled several Starburst candies from his pocket.

Added Johnson: “We have a young Army and they love soda pop. Soda pop dehydrates them.” Harris said many of them think the carbonated beverage quenches their thirst, but the high sugar content actually robs the body of water.

• They caution, too, about some of the available dietary supplements used often by people building up muscles. Supplements that contain ephedra can cause serious heart problems. And Creatin, a popular supplement, is known to cause kidney problems.

• Insects and mice carry disease and are prevalent in the desert. Harris and Johnson advised using repellents to stymie insects and keep Mom’s chocolate chip cookies from home out of your tent, where mice will eventually find them.

Harris said the message is getting through in all these areas. For the most part, the health problems caused by simple neglect of good habits are diminishing.

“Overall, the soldiers and leaders out there are doing a good job of taking care of people,” Johnson said.

Added Harris: “We’re starting to see the fruits of that labor.”

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