U.S. military in Europe ready to fight off influenza
Although the military in Europe and the Middle East hasn’t reported being hit with an outbreak, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more cases of influenza in the United States earlier in the year than at any other time since 1976.
The first week of November was the first time since then that more than 10 percent of people tested for the flu were positive so early. Almost 20 percent had the bug, according to the CDC, and the flu season normally doesn’t peak until February.
Adding to the threat to Americans is the fact that the flu vaccine the government approved this year is designed to fight a slightly different strain of virus than the one now plaguing the States, according to the CDC.
Military doctors overseas and the CDC, however, believe the vaccine is a close enough match to provide some protection and encourage everyone to take it.
In the meantime, they wait.
“It might be that it hasn’t arrived here yet,” said Col. Loren Erickson, doctor and commander of the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine in Landstuhl, Germany. “The fact that it arrived in a very dramatic way in the United Kingdom, and the fact that it arrived in France — it’s only a matter of time.”
Erickson said he knew of no flu cases among U.S. Army Europe soldiers, including those serving in Iraq. Lt. Cmdr. Terrence Dudley, a spokesman for U.S. Navy Europe, said a few sailors in Spain and Scotland have come down with the flu, but at a rate nowhere near epidemic.
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe hasn’t seen any flu wave either, according to spokesman 1st Lt. Bryan Edmonson.
“They get weekly reports, so it’s pretty current,” Edmonson said.
Military personnel are required to have shots. Bases typically offer free shots for military and civilians working for the Defense Department.
“Of all the things people can do to benefit their health, the flu shot is probably the most effective,” Erickson said. Though some people may suffer soreness afterward, he said the vaccine cannot cause the flu. The virus in the vaccine is already dead.
Erickson said it typically takes two weeks for the defense to kick in.
“You really don’t want to wait until all your neighbors are sick before you get your flu shot,” he said.
The Army, the service with the most troops in Europe, has already inoculated about a third of its soldiers. Gen. B.B. Bell, the top Army officer in Europe, and Brig. Gen. Elder Granger, the Army’s theater surgeon general, have set a goal to see 95 percent of troops vaccinated by January. Last year, the command inoculated 93 percent of its troops — the highest rate in the service. The Department of the Army requires that 90 percent of all soldiers be inoculated.
“We put on a very aggressive campaign,” said Col. Allen Kraft, director of force health protection for the Army in Europe, and for the Europe Regional Medical Command. “...This year we’ve set the bar higher. So far, we’re on track.”
Kraft admitted, however, that inoculating troops in Iraq poses an extra challenge.
The type of flu going around is more aggressive than the strain for which scientists planned. That’s why this year’s vaccine is not an exact match.
However, Erickson called the difference between the expected and actual flu strains a “drift change,” a much less severe mismatch than what’s called a “shift change.”
Either way, the flu should not be confused with the common cold.
“With influenza, we’re talking about a total body disease,” Erickson said. Victims suffer from fever, muscle aches, joint pain and fatigue.
“They’re flat on their back. And probably somebody is bringing them food.”
According to the American Lung Association, the 1918 flu pandemic killed 20 million people worldwide. It kills from 20,000 to 40,000 Americans every year.
“True influenza,” Erickson said, “is a very serious illness.”