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Military Doctors Discuss Humanitarian Assistance

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 14, 2004 – Military medical professionals are more and more often called upon to provide aid in humanitarian disasters. The largest organization of military medical professionals in the world is meeting here this week to address this trend.

More than 350 delegates from 70 countries are attending the 35th International Congress on Military Medicine. Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, called the theme of this year's congress, Humanitarian Assistance for Natural and Man-Made Disasters, "very appropriate" given circumstances in the world today.

As military medical professionals continue humanitarian work in Afghanistan and Iraq, others are responding to hurricanes in the Western Hemisphere and typhoons in Japan, as well as dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist tragedy in Russia.

"We are reminded that medicine, particularly military medicine, has greater challenges now than at any time in recent memory," Winkenwerder said in remarks opening the conference Sept. 13.

Winkenwerder described work being done to rebuild the health systems in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, work has focused on restoring healthcare for women and children, which had largely been ignored when the Taliban was in power. "Things were very dire for women and children," he said.

In Iraq, he said, U.S. and international organizations have been working to assess healthcare needs in a country where the healthcare system "suffered under three decades of corruption and neglect."

Winkenwerder said he has been to Iraq and has had an ongoing dialogue with the country's health minister. He said he is convinced Iraq is on the right track to rebuilding its healthcare network. "This has truly been an international effort that has produced many, many good things," Winkenwerder said, "new hospitals, new clinics, improved methods of taking care of people, immunizations for children, nutrition for mothers and babies, and there's very good progress."

The doctor described "the healing arts" as "the binding force for decency and respect for our fellow man," adding that the art of medicine transcends geopolitical borders.

"Medicine truly has no national boundaries and no natural adversary," Winkenwerder said. "It is a force to bring us together."

During the week, conference attendees were scheduled to hear speakers address themes including support to displaced populations and confronting regional and international disease threats, as well as emotional support to those in life- challenging and disaster situations.

"Humanitarian assistance goes beyond responding to immediate physical needs," Winkenwerder said. "Disasters are, by definition, traumatic events, both physically and emotionally. They are accompanied by stress, fear, and at the time, hopelessness.

"Challenges to mental health must be addressed with the same rigor as for physical ailments," he said. "For some, the affects are short-lived. For others, the suffering lasts for months or even years."

Besides humanitarian issues, military medical professionals must focus foremost on the health of their own forces. Winkenwerder described the United States' approach to ensuring servicemembers' health, which DoD calls force health protection.

Winkenwerder said force health protection has revolutionized the way the U.S. military preserves and sustains the health of its troops through improved environmental and medical surveillance, safety and injury-prevention practices, and electronic record-keeping.

All of these advances are needed to care for servicemembers and respond to humanitarian disasters in a rapidly changing world.

"There is no question that we live in some difficult and challenging times today in the world. The scourge of terror has affected our country here, has affected many of your countries," Winkenwerder told attendees. "It is a challenge for all of us. And certainly, military medicine has a role to play, and this forum can be an important place to exchange ideas and develop relationships that can help us address that very, very difficult challenge."

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Biographies:
Dr. William Winkenwerder, Assistant Defense Secretary for Health Affairs


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