III MEF ready to respond if avian flu pandemic hits
CAMP COURTNEY, Okinawa — If the avian flu becomes a real pandemic threat to humans, especially in the Western Pacific, the III Marine Expeditionary Force will be ready.
During a recent humanitarian relief deployment to the Philippines, MEF corpsmen tested technology a Portsmouth, N.H., firm developed for almost instant tracking of vital information that in the past would take days or even weeks to analyze.
And a team of Marines and sailors has developed a detailed pandemic influenza response plan for Okinawa.
Global Relief Technologies was awarded a $3.5 million contract last fall to provide about 120 PDAs — hand-held computer devices — to the Marine Corps, which at any time has personnel scattered on deployments throughout Southeast Asia. The region is considered ground zero for the bird flu that could one day mutate and become the next great human pandemic.
The equipment, along with accompanying computers and satellite hookups, was delivered to the 3rd Medical Battalion before they deployed last month for a humanitarian mission to southeast Luzon, the Philippines island where some 15,000 people lived in camps after being displaced following a series of natural disasters in December.
“This initiative is driven by the need to collect and record data for tracking the avian flu — and any other humanitarian crisis — quickly and accurately,” said Navy Capt. David Lane, Force Surgeon for the III MEF. “It worked exceedingly well.”
He said information Global’s software processed was available as soon as corpsmen in the field could hook their PDAs to the satellite link and send the data to a collection point in Hawaii.
“On past missions — well, let’s just say it took much longer,” Lane said. “I could show you stacks of cards and logbooks filled with data that would take weeks to compile into reports.”
Lane said two medical teams were dispatched to six evacuation centers to deliver medical care during what was dubbed “Operation Goodwill.”
The data the software managed included breakdowns of the patients by sex, age, medical condition and treatment options.
“As they worked I could watch from afar — by computer — and follow the patients through the whole process,” Lane said. “With this we can compare the information gathered with data from previous missions and be better able to determine our needs and course of action.”
Although the system can be used for any humanitarian relief crises, it was specifically developed to track the avian flu, according to Global.
“Statistically speaking, we’re overdue,” said Navy Lt. Matthew Mercer, the 3rd Marine Division’s environmental health officer. Mercer recently received the Rear Admiral Charles S. Stephenson Award for Excellence in Navy Occupational Health, Preventive Medicine and Health Promotion, partly for his work on developing the influenza response plan.
“On average, there are about four pandemics per century — about one every 25 years,” Mercer said. “The last one was in 1968. The avian flu has a good shot at being the next big one.”
So far, nearly all the humans who have contracted the disease had direct contact with ailing birds, Mercer said. More than half of them died.
“It’s certainly a cause for concern,” he said. “We’re only one or two small mutations away from this influenza going human to human.”
Most of 288 human flu cases in South Asia
The World Health organization has reported 288 cases since 2003 of humans contracting the avian influenza-A virus, also known as H5N1, with 170 resulting in death.
The countries with the highest incidents of human cases have been Vietnam with 93 cases and 42 deaths; Indonesia, 81 cases and 63 deaths; Thailand, 25 cases and 17 deaths; and China, 24 cases and 15 deaths.
Outside the South Asia region, Egypt ranked high with 32 cases and 13 deaths since 2003.
The Biohazard Working Group and the Joint Preventive Medicine Epidemiological Center for Health are the two agencies established by the U.S. forces on Okinawa for identifying and preventing biohazard threats on the island. They maintain a Web site at: www.okinawa.usmc.mil/ pandemicflu/.