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U.S. servicemembers deployed to assist nations devastated by Sunday’s earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean should remain safe from diseases experts say could take as many lives as the disastrous events.

While on relief deployments, U.S. military personnel are advised of disease prevention methods, are inoculated to the hilt and travel with drugs effective against illnesses contracted in the tsunami-ravaged region, explained Capt. Jeff Alderson, spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii.

“The units deploying to assist with the relief efforts carry their own water and purification systems,” Alderson said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

“They do everything needed for prevention and have all the appropriate medicines. They’re well trained for this.

“It’s something we’ve done before,” he added.

The affected populations face the threat of cholera and malaria epidemics where water supplies are polluted with bodies and debris.

“The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer-term suffering of the affected communities,” said Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the WHO in Geneva, according to the Associated Press.

Pacific Command created a forward command at Utapao, Thailand, for command, control and communication functions. It also is the regional hub for emergency and medical personnel, and the staging area for military and rescue aircraft, forensic experts and other relief assistance, according to PACOM officials.

The USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group steamed toward Southeast Asia, as did the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, officials stated in a release Tuesday. Both forces have emergency medical treatment capabilities.

“Whenever servicemembers deploy to another country, or even go on a vacation, we discuss disease prevention and make sure their inoculations are current,” explained Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Paul, a hospitalman and leading petty officer at the preventative medicine unit at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

“We also routinely brief them about certain preventative steps, such as drinking only bottled water, and not eating anything sold on a stick in the streets,” Paul said Wednesday.

Servicemembers are instructed not to eat anything unless it comes from an approved source, such as a ship’s galley or food prepared in sanitary locations, he added. Food poisoning and cholera, an acute intestinal infection, can result from ingesting spoiled food or items prepared in unsanitary locations, or drinking contaminated water.

“We also tell them to only use ice in a drink made from purified water.

“Even in a cooler, if a can or bottle chills on ice made from unpurified water,” he said, “and they forget to clean the excess water off the bottle opening or can top before drinking, they can get sick; it only takes a little of the bacteria.”

Paul said a supply of antibiotics such as Cipro is carried on deployments to treat servicemembers with a foodborne illness such as cholera.

In addition, Paul said, personnel are advised to use insect repellant, wear long sleeves and slacks and refrain from venturing outdoors in the evenings — peak feeding time for mosquitoes, which spread malaria.

“It is a parasitic disease, and [servicemembers] are given a malaria prophylaxis treatment using specific scheduled doses,” Paul said.


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