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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Severe acute respiratory syndrome won’t affect upcoming U.S. military exercises in Thailand and the Philippines, military officials have announced, but the disease could land participating servicemembers with some extra paperwork.

“Exercises like Balikatan and Cobra Gold are still scheduled, but airmen should expect to see some additional screening when going into, and leaving, foreign countries,” said Col. Michael Lischak, a doctor and chief of the Aero-medical and Dental Division for Pacific Air Forces Surgeon General.

Servicemembers returning from nations with reported SARS cases will be given a health questionnaire, Lischak said.

To date, the Philippines has reported two SARS cases, according to the World Health Organization. Marines are there for Balikatan, a training exercise with the armed forces of the Philippines. About 1,200 U.S. military personnel are expected to participate in the exercise, which runs from Friday to May 9.

Cobra Gold, a U.S.-Thai training exercise in Thailand, runs May 15 to May 29. Thailand has reported seven SARS cases and two deaths so far, according to WHO, but Lischak said the virus has not been transmitted locally there.

“The cases in Thailand all originated somewhere else,” he said.

Chances of contracting SARS are slim-to-none in countries where the virus isn’t spreading, the doctor said.

U.S. airmen deploying from Japan to any country in Asia will receive information on how to protect themselves against SARS, said Maj. Alice Chapman, public health flight commander for Yokota Air Base’s 374th Medical Group.

Thailand’s Bangkok Post reported last week that Singaporean, Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers taking part in Cobra Gold will undergo health checks before leaving for the exercise and again when arriving in Thailand.

SARS has sickened almost 3,900 people in more than two dozen countries, according to the latest WHO statistics. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath. No cure has been found.

“The No. 1 way to protect yourself is to wash your hands frequently and avoid crowds,” Chapman said, adding that the disease is spread through close, personal contact. “People don’t need to be frightened of going about their business. Walking down the street or walking through an airport is not going to increase someone’s risk.”

No cases of SARS have been reported among active-duty servicemembers, Lischak said.

WHO reports five SARS cases in Japan and none in South Korea.

Chapman expects SARS will have minimal impact on Pacific theater military blood drives and blood supplies. No case of SARS has been transmitted through blood, Chapman said.

“Nor do we know if it can be transmitted that way,” she added.

But Pacific Air Forces is adhering to recent Food and Drug Administration guidelines, PACAF officials said Tuesday. They suggest that potential donors who recently visited China, Vietnam and Singapore avoid giving blood for 14 days after returning. Anyone sickened with SARS should be kept from donating until 28 days after symptoms subside and treatment is complete.

“We’re talking about relatively few people who travel to those countries, particularly now with travel restrictions in place,” Chapman said.

U.S. Pacific Command has restricted military personnel from non-mission-essential trips to China and Hong Kong. The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet has canceled port calls and other travel to southern China and Hong Kong.

SARS, believed to have originated in southern China, has claimed 217 lives across Asia, Europe and North America, according to Monday figures from WHO.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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