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Severe Pneumonia Cases Cease Among Service Members in Southwest Asia

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2003 – A spate of cases of severe pneumonia that had killed two U.S. service members deployed to Southwest Asia seems to have ended, a senior Defense Department health official said here Sept. 29.

From March until late August, about 100 active duty troops came down with some form of the respiratory ailment while conducting military operations in Iraq and the U.S. Central Command theater of operations, noted Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, DoD's deputy director of deployment health support, in an interview with American Forces Radio and Television Service.

"That rate of pneumonia in the (numbers of) deployed people is not unusual," Kilpatrick said. In August, more than 160,000 service members were deployed in and around Southwest Asia supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Coming down with pneumonia, Kilpatrick explained, isn't a rare occurrence in the service. In fact, the Army surgeon general's office noted that each year the Army experiences between 400 and 500 cases of pneumonia worldwide.

What was unusual, Kilpatrick explained, was that among the 100 troops in Southwest Asia who'd been stricken with pneumonia, 19 came down with particularly severe breathing problems that required treatment with respirators. The doctor noted that two of the 19 died. Both were soldiers who'd served in Iraq.

In early August, the Army deployed two medical teams overseas to try to understand the causes of the apparent pneumonia outbreak.

But now, "the good news ... is that we've not had any more serious (pneumonia) cases requiring mechanical ventilation since Aug. 20," Kilpatrick said.

Of the 19 virulent cases of pneumonia, the doctor said four were caused by bacterial infections. Of the other serious pneumonia cases, Kilpatrick noted, "we're just not certain (of the causes) at this point."

Military health officials, however, do rule out the likelihood that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, was the cause of the pneumonia, Kilpatrick said. Chemical and biological agents, the doctor noted, also have been ruled out.

"The investigation is continuing to try to understand what may be a cause" for the pneumonia, Kilpatrick noted.

Worth noting, he said, is that 15 of the 19 service members who'd come down with pneumonia were smokers, and eight had taken up smoking while they were deployed.

"Cigarette smoking is never good for your health, and it certainly could be a contributor to the cause of pneumonia -- and perhaps of severe pneumonia -- in some individuals," Kilpatrick concluded.

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