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U.S. Helicopter Provides Vital Lift to Docs Treating Epidemic

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2002 – A U.S. Special Forces helicopter provided a much-needed lift to three civilian doctors working to treat a suspected whooping cough epidemic in the Darwaz area of Afghanistan.

The disease, also called pertussis, is believed to have claimed the lives of 70 to 200 children in the area, a U.S. Joint Staff spokesman said in the Pentagon today.

Earlier this week, representatives of the World Health Organization asked the U.S. military for transportation support because of the severe nature of the outbreak and the remoteness of the region.

A U.S. MH-47 Chinook picked up the three doctors, from the aid group Aga Khan Development Network, and 15 boxes of supplies in Faisabad and transported them to Darwaz, the spokesman said. The supplies included enough vaccine for up to 2,000 people, antibiotics and other medical supplies.

Because of road conditions in the region, the doctors' only other option would have been to ride three days on horseback. The doctors were carrying vaccine that can only remain out of refrigeration for 48 hours, the Joint Staff spokesman said.

The mission was further complicated by high elevation. Darwaz, in the Badhakshan Province, is at about 15,000 feet above sea level. Most helicopters can't fly at that elevation because the air is too thin to provide lift. The spokesman said a Chinook is best suited for missions at this elevation.

Prior to the 1940s, whooping cough killed up to 200,000 Americans a year. Since then, infants in America have been routinely vaccinated against pertussis. The disease, a respiratory infection caused by an easily transmitted bacteria, is not a major public-health concern in this country.

Experts with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimate as many as 300,000 people, mostly children, die from pertussis each year in countries that don't routinely vaccinate against the disease.

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