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U.S. Army Africa Chief of Staff, Col. Pedro Almeida gives a brief history of Caserma Ederle to U.S. Senate staff members on Feb. 19, 2014. Almeida on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014, stressed during a town hall meeting at Vicenza that troops heading to Africa to help fight the Ebola outbreak are not in a position to contract the disease.

U.S. Army Africa Chief of Staff, Col. Pedro Almeida gives a brief history of Caserma Ederle to U.S. Senate staff members on Feb. 19, 2014. Almeida on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014, stressed during a town hall meeting at Vicenza that troops heading to Africa to help fight the Ebola outbreak are not in a position to contract the disease. (Rich Bartell/U.S. Army)

VICENZA, Italy — If Col. Pedro Almeida has said it once, he’s said it a dozen times: Only sick, symptomatic Ebola virus disease sufferers can infect anyone else, and only through transmission of body fluids.

Officials have repeatedly said that U.S. Army Africa troops deployed in Liberia will have no contact with Ebola victims and almost certainly will not have the virus when they return to Italy.

“I cannot tell you it is a zero percent chance (that a soldier would be infected with EVD),” said Almeida, USARAF’s chief of staff, during a Wednesday town hall meeting with Italian civilians who work for the U.S. military. “What I can tell you is that our soldiers are not in a position to contract Ebola.”

The meeting in the garrison movie theater was one of two this week at Caserne Ederle to reassure local workers that USARAF’s 100 or so personnel redeploying to Vicenza in a couple of weeks would not pose a health threat.The meetings came in response to what Almeida said was “a lot of concerns in the community”

Wednesday’s town hall served as primer on how the disease is transmitted and the factors, such as poverty and rudimentary health care, that have propelled the West African epidemic that has been confirmed to have killed nearly 5,000 people since December.

“It is very hard to contract Ebola,” Almeida said, pointing out that more than 50 people who came into contact with Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man who died in Dallas from EVD, did not become infected.

But USARAF personnel, Almeida stressed, are having little contact with any Liberians, let alone Ebola patients.

They are not out building the 18 hospitals the U.S. has promised, training health care workers or staffing mobile labs being set up to perform blood tests. What they’re doing, he said, is “setting up all of that.”

Almeida outlined protocols for monitoring those who have traveled to West Africa that he said exceeded those of the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control. These, he said, have been planned in concert with Italian authorities.

Among the safeguards:

Personnel are currently having their temperatures taken twice daily. Twelve hours before they leave Liberia, they’ll be tested by a health-care provider and screened for any enhanced risk through a series of questions. Anyone with symptoms, such as a fever, or anyone whose answers indicate enhanced risk will not be allowed on the plane home, Almeida said. After arriving in Vicenza, personnel will undergo another screening at the garrison health center, followed by twice-daily, in-person temperature checks for 21 days. Returning troops will not be allowed to leave the Vicenza area during that time. “We’re doing all this with a group of people who have never been exposed to the virus in the first place,” Almeida said.

He warned that returning troops might in fact develop fevers. Even so, that should not be cause for alarm. “It’s flu season,” he said. Or, he said, a fever in redeployed personnel could mean malaria.

Almeida said an on-call doctor at the local Vicenza hospital would decide if a feverish person should be isolated there and await blood test results from a Rome laboratory.

Anyone who tested positive for Ebola would be taken to a Milan hospital.

There were some skeptics at Wednesday’s town hall. Several people suggested that the returning troops be quarantined for 21 days.

One man asked to know which day the troops would return so he could avoid public areas on post and frequently wash his hands for 21 days. Another said he’d seen an Italian television show that indicated “that some of the people who were in Liberia have had brief and occasional encounters with people with Ebola.”

Not true, he was told.

He remained unconvinced by official assurances at the end of the lengthy session.

“I doubt,” he said.

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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