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Navy Medical Unit Helps Africa, Asia Combat Medical Threats

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

CAIRO, April 21, 2009 – Disease knows no borders, and the men and women of the U.S. Naval Research Unit No. 3 here know that better than anyone.

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Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tours Naval Medical Research Unit 3 in Cairo, April 21, 2009. The unit was founded to battle a typhus outbreak during World War II and now is on the front line in detecting diseases in developing countries and aiding those countries in strengthening the public health care systems where they operate. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the joint-service unit today and received briefings on how it operates and what threats the doctors, microbiologists and entomologists track each day. With similar units in Djakarta, Indonesia, and Lima, Peru, the unit tracks infections, disease vectors and the scope of outbreaks.

The units work with host nations and other nations in their regions to build medical capacity.

Cholera, other diarrheal diseases, HIV, avian influenza, Rift Valley fever, e-bola, leishmaniasis are among the diseases tracks, and the list goes on. Afghanistan even has diseases no one has ever heard of, because few researchers were allowed into the country in the past, Navy Lt. (Dr.) Jamal Dejli, a microbiologist at the unit, said.

From a military perspective, the unit works to ensure U.S. troops worldwide have good medical force protection. With airline travel as prevalent as it is today, the dengue fever that was a problem in Ethiopia today could be causing havoc at Fort Bragg, N.C., tomorrow.

The unit – working with partners in Egypt, other nations, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control – are part of the tripwire to chart diseases, develop vaccines and respond to any outbreaks.

“This is a really important unit and a really important mission,” Mullen told the American and Egyptian workers at the unit. The chairman thanked them for their work and told them that he is proud of the work they do for America and the world.

Working alongside 152 Egyptian scientists and 97 contractors, 22 Navy and Army personnel and 11 career civilians work at the unit here. The unit has excellent rapport with Egypt’s Ministry of Public Health and with countries running from Central Asia throughout Africa. “Our medical staff went on 1,200 temporary duty assignments last year,” Navy Capt. (Dr.) Kenneth Earhart, the unit commander, said.

Earhart told the chairman that the unit has had a shift in the way it operates over the past few years. It previously had concentrated on pure medical research, but now the U.S. and Egyptian specialists are spending as much time building capacity in neighboring countries as they do on research, he said.

“They are interested in the same things we are: building the capacity to improve public health, track diseases and respond to outbreaks,” Earhart said. “We do a lot of training and capacity building from Kazakhstan to West Africa.”

When there is a disease outbreak, unit medics can go to the area and conduct field studies, or local governments can send samples to the unit for analysis and advice. The unit has reference laboratory services that researchers across the region can use.

The unit began in 1942 as part of the effort to address the problem of typhus among allied troops in North Africa. It was effective, and after the war, the Navy established the unit and expanded its responsibilities. It is a unit dedicated to the health of all. No one goes into a country unasked, and conclusions and research are shared with all qualified public health professionals.

When there was a break in U.S.-Egyptian relations after Egypt’s Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, all Americans were required to leave Egypt. The Egyptian staff maintained the unit’s capability. Soon, the Egyptian government made an exception and allowed the unit’s commanding officer to return. He was virtually alone until relations thawed in 1974.

The unit has plenty to do. Workers are developing an integrated communicable disease surveillance database, working with countries of the region to publish a disease surveillance bulletin, and are looking for antibiotic resistance for diarrheas and for drug-resistant tuberculosis.

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Navy Adm. Mike Mullen

Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets servicemembers assigned to Naval Medical Research Unit 3 in Cairo, April 21, 2009. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley  
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