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Face of Defense: Troops Stick to Health Practices in Liberia

By Army Spc. Caitlyn Byrne 27th Public Affairs Detachment

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MONROVIA, Liberia, Jan. 14, 2015 — Whether they are learning new techniques to stay mentally resilient, exercising to stay physically strong, or washing their hands and applying hand sanitizer to prevent illness, service members deployed under Joint Forces Command – United Assistance in Monrovia, Liberia, are always taking steps to stay healthy.

It is imperative that service members maintain a high level of health and physical well-being so that in turn, they can provide the optimum amount of aid to the people and government of Liberia.

Army Capt. Tyler Mark, force health protection officer for the JFC-UA surgeon cell, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), said soldiers deployed for Operation United Assistance are keeping up with their personal health practice requirements such as frequent hand washing and temperature checks.

Health Checks, Balances

“We have multiple checks and balances in place to ensure that soldiers are staying healthy,” said Mark, who hails from Kenosha, Wisconsin. “We’ve found that one of the most effective methods to have soldiers comply with health standards is command influence, where if the commanding general says that his number-one priority is health protection, soldiers are even more likely to listen and follow instruction.”

However, Mark said, such command influence is more of an assurance than a necessity. Soldiers here, he said, are more than willing to maintain proper health protection practices on their own, using the multiple bleach buckets located outside community buildings, washing their hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, carrying their required personal protection equipment and performing temperature checks twice daily.

Army Spc. William Ferguson, health specialist for Headquarters Support Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, said he feels his work as a health specialist deployed to Barclay Training Center in Monrovia is making a difference in helping to keep soldiers healthy.

“Part of my duties here are to make sure that all the bleach buckets are filled,” said Ferguson, an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, native. “I check all the buckets spread around camp each hour, and I probably refill them about every two hours. It feels good to be a part of keeping everyone healthy here and make a difference. People need to wash their hands and if I wasn’t doing my job well, then that might not happen -- people could get sick.”

Health Surveillance System

There is a JFC-UA preventative medicine system in place to ensure that not only are soldiers following proper health practices, but that they are provided with the resources and clean environment in which to live and operate, Mark said.

“It is a combined effort from the 61st Preventative Medicine Detachment and the 463rd Veterinary Detachment, who both fall under the 86th Combat Support Hospital,” Mark said. “The 61st conducts vector surveillance, vector sprays, dining facility health inspections and food and water safety, while the 463rd conducts more specific food and water testing of the food and water that are coming in to each camp to ensure they’re up to standard.”

Preventative Medicine Teams

Teams of two to four preventative measure and veterinary health specialists are sent to conduct weekly site visits of Barclay Training Center and all other camps in Liberia, Mark said.

“Preventative medicine teams will walk around a site, checking for things like the proper dispersal and use of bed nets, the cleanliness of personal hygiene areas, dining facilities and sleeping areas,” Mark said. “They will go in and check the quality of the water and food being served to soldiers, as well as randomly ask soldiers if they are carrying the proper PPE.”

Mark said the health of soldiers is paramount to the success of the mission and that JFC-UA has a complex and layered system in place to ensure soldiers are both taken care of and taking care of themselves.

“Not only do we have our preventative medicine teams, we also have inspector general teams that conduct similar, independent assessments as well,” he said. “They mostly check with lower command leaders in charge at the various camps to gauge the level of compliance with health practices. We also have the mayor cells of each camp ensure that there are soldiers refilling the bleach buckets, conducting temperature checks and that sanitation contractors are doing their part as well.”

Tracking Health Information

Mark’s team also has a way of tracking all the information that the preventative medicine teams collect.

“There is a lot of information to disseminate, so we use a disease and non-battle injury report,” he said. “Each JFC-UA camp sends up a daily report of the number of soldiers who go to sick call and what symptoms they have. Based on those numbers we can create a fairly robust tracking system that we can adjust and evaluate. It is both site-specific and a good picture of how our entire operation is running.”

As far as ensuring whether all these systems and preventative medicine practices are actually being used by soldiers, Mark said that Col. Todd Vento, the senior infectious disease subject matter expert from Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, came up with an anonymous survey to gauge exactly how closely soldiers are following the recommended health practices.

“Col. Vento came up with an extensive survey that asked soldiers to verify whether or not they are doing things like taking their anti-malarial medicine daily, are they getting their temperatures checked, are they using Deet or bug spray, are they wearing the proper treated uniforms,” Mark said. “We received about 600 surveys back and all showed good signs of compliance with the standards that we have established.”

Keeping Watch for Malaria

Mark said they have found Malaria-carrying mosquitos in all of the JFC-UA camps in Liberia and the potential attack rate of the mosquitos is between 11 to 50 percent, meaning between 11 to 50 percent of soldiers deployed in Liberia run the risk of getting bitten by a mosquito infected with Malaria. The number of soldiers reported having Malaria is still zero.

“This situation is unique,” Mark said. “This is a different kind of deployment, this being a humanitarian mission with a huge emphasis on medical issues. It differs from the usual deployment because it is a very controlled environment when it comes to public health and preventative measures.

“There is little troop migration and when soldiers do go out on mission there are numerous measures in place to ensure that they come back healthy,” he continued. “A far as force health protection, standards are always maintained -- no matter the situation.”