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Army Medical Teams to Investigate Overseas Pneumonia Cases

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 2003 – The U.S. Army is deploying two medical teams overseas - one to Germany and the other to Iraq -- to examine a spate of pneumonia cases within the U.S. Central Command region that apparently killed two soldiers.

Since March 1, about 100 active duty service members deployed to Southwest Asia in support of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have come down with pneumonia, DoD civilian and military medical officials told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing today.

Army officials noted that 15 service members among the 100 had contracted severe pneumonia. Among those severe cases, according to an Army Surgeon General news release, 10 have recovered, two have died, and three remain hospitalized.

"We are deeply concerned about the (soldiers') deaths," said Dr. David N. Tornberg, deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical and program policy. He emphasized that "the health, safety, well-being of our fighting men and women are of critical utmost importance to us."

And "we'll spare nothing to safeguard their well-being," declared Tornberg, accompanied at the briefing by Col. Robert DeFraites from the Army Surgeon General's Office.

The Army, Tornberg noted, is taking the lead in the investigation, which was prompted by the soldiers' deaths.

One epidemiological consultation team is heading for a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to examine service members being treated there, DeFraites explained, while the other team is going to Iraq. He said both teams are en route to their destinations and may arrive as early as Aug. 6.

The two soldiers who died from pneumonia had both served in Iraq and were from different units, DeFraites noted, pointing out that 10 of the 15 cases of severe pneumonia had occurred in Iraq, "where the majority of troops are."

He said the other troops stricken with pneumonia within the CENTCOM area of operations were serving in Kuwait, Qatar and Uzbekistan.

The 15 troops who were treated for severe pneumonia had undergone respirator treatment to assist breathing, DeFraites noted.

One soldier died in June, he said, and the other in July. Fourteen of the severe pneumonia cases are soldiers and one is a Marine, he added. One being treated is a woman.

And of those 15 cases, two occurred in March, two In April, one in May, six in June, and four in July, DeFraites noted. The last confirmed case of pneumonia, he noted, was recorded July 30.

However, the exact cause of death of the two soldiers isn't presently known, DeFraites pointed out. The Army medical teams, he noted, will determine that.

There are two types of pneumonia, DeFraites said: infectious or non-infectious. Bacteria, fungi or parasites can cause infectious pneumonia, he explained, while non-infectious pneumonia can be acquired through environmental factors, such as by breathing in metal-, dust- or smoke-laden air.

Two of the 15 severe cases had the infectious type, DeFraites noted, which he said was the most common cause of pneumonia in the United States.

American military medical officials, DeFraites pointed out, have ruled out biological weapons as being a cause of the illnesses.

The colonel noted that 100 or so cases of pneumonia in CENTCOM's area of operations basically tracks with historical norms, given the size of the force. More than 160,000 service members are deployed in and around Southwest Asia supporting Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For example, he noted, every year the Army experiences between 400 and 500 cases of pneumonia worldwide.

"That's fairly standard, as surprising as it may seem," DeFraites observed, noting, "otherwise healthy young adults still do get pneumonia in the Army." He noted that 17 soldiers have died from pneumonia in the past five years.

The post-mortem reports for the two deceased soldiers which will be factored into the investigation -- probably won't be completed for at least a week to 10 days, DeFraites said.

He noted that the patients' names wouldn't be released because of privacy issues.

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