Army microbiologist helps battle mosquito-borne illnesses from lab Down Under
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 21, 2019
BRISBANE, Australia — A U.S. Army-run laboratory on an Australian military base is helping protect troops from mosquito-borne diseases in tropical environments such as the training areas used in this month’s Talisman Sabre exercise Down Under.
The lab was set up by Capt. Jennifer Kooken, 34, of Derry, N.H., a microbiologist with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She has been working at the Australian Defence Force’s Malaria and Infectious Disease Institute on Gallipoli Barracks in Brisbane for the past year.
The institute is charged with preventing the spread, to servicemembers, of insect-borne diseases and understanding and treating those diseases, she said.
U.S. Army officers have worked at the institute since 1984 but the laboratory is Kooken’s pet project.
Equipped with $500,000 worth of new sample trays, pipettes, beakers, a gene sequencer and a work bench with a protective glass screen to stop samples from getting contaminated, the lab is an important tool for protecting troops in places that might have unique insect-borne health threats, Kooken said during a tour of the facility Saturday.
“We’re trying to set up a surveillance station for the Indo-Pacific region,” she said. “The Australian Defence Force sends troops to South Pacific islands. We want to find out what diseases they encounter there.”
Kooken, one of 91 Army microbiologists worldwide, can test blood samples from deployed troops to check for 30 insect-borne diseases endemic to the Indo-Pacific.
Things she can test for include Lyme disease, scrub typhus, Yellow River virus, Japanese encephalitis, Ross River virus and malaria.
“When our soldiers encounter any of these diseases there can be an immediate impact on force readiness and ability to complete the mission,” she said. “We need to know and understand what potential health threats will be encountered during training exercises and deployments all around the world.”
There are important differences between operating environments in the Indo-Pacific. For example, there’s no Lyme disease in Australia but there is Ross River virus, Kooken said.
U.S. troops have contracted the virus in the past in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, one of the main venues for Talisman Sabre, she said. The monthlong biennial exercise, which includes 34,000 military personnel from the U.S., Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdon, runs until early August.
Shoalwater Bay is also home to dengue fever. The disease often seems like a case of the flu at first, but it can cause bleeding and the symptoms worsen the more times you contract it, she said.
Australian army Capt. Lisa Rigby, 31, of Brisbane, an entomologist, works next door to Kooken. Her lab is filled with thousands of blood-sucking critters that she hatches from larvae in dozens of shallow, water-filled plastic pans.
Rigby’s lab is entered and exited through a pair of doors designed to stop mosquitos from straying outside. Rigby feeds the insects, kept under nets and segregated by species, with blood from mice and other animals through artificial membrane containers.
Rigby said she’s also fed them her own blood, claiming she had hundreds of mosquito bites on her stomach.
Some of the lab mosquitos are exotic species not usually found in Australia. Others are purposely infected with deadly diseases so that they can be studied, Kooken said.
The forest surrounding the institute has mosquito traps designed to alert authorities if a mosquito should escape, although that hasn’t happened, she said.
Testing at the facility will provide information on diseases in any given country or region of the Indo-Pacific, she said.
For example, if troops from a host nation test positive for a mosquito-borne disease, it would be a warning that they could pass it on to U.S. forces operating alongside them, Kooken said.
The information will help leaders determine what vaccines troops get before they go to certain places and what post-deployment health care they get, she said.
Kooken reports to the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangkok, Thailand, one of three Army overseas disease research centers overseen by Walter Reed alongside facilities in Kenya and the nation of Georgia.
A year into a three-year tour to Brisbane, Kooken, along with her Australian colleagues, is preparing to analyze blood drawn from Papua New Guinean troops and Australian servicemembers who recently deployed to the tropical island, she said.
When the scientists find a pathogen in a soldier’s blood, they pass the information back to medical workers who determine what treatment is needed, she said.
Australian personnel from the institute have visited the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Samoa to study insects and the pathogens they carry and transmit to people as well as show locals how to protect themselves from the diseases, she said.
The institute has been testing military uniforms to see if they protect people. Testing has shown that some uniforms treated with fire retardant don’t absorb repellant and that some repellant in uniforms comes out in the wash, she said.
“If you are spending money on these things you need you know they’re working,” she said.
The best protection is to take several measures such as wearing long sleeves, using repellent and sleeping with a mosquito net, Kooken said.
The institute is also involved in a local trial of a new malaria drug, Tafenoquine, which has been licensed in the U.S. and Australia but isn’t yet used by the Army. A weekly dose will protect people but the scientists in Brisbane are testing to see if it will work with only a monthly dose, Kooken said.
“People are really bad at taking medicine especially in deployed situations,” she said.
When she’s not working in her lab, Kooken helps in a larger Australian lab nearby, using a mass spectrometer to search for a protein that could be used to test for new strains of malaria that have mutated so much they don’t show up with conventional fast tests, she said.