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SARS Impact on DoD 'Almost Nil' So Far, Senior Health Official Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2003 – So far, the mysterious respiratory illness that's killed almost 400 people worldwide has had a negligible effect on the U.S. military, DoD's top civilian health official said April 29.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, characterized the severe acute respiratory syndrome's impact on DoD health care beneficiaries as "almost nil." He cited just one possible case involving a retiree at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

"I don't want to give a great deal of credence to this report yet, because it's still being evaluated," Winkenwerder cautioned reporters during his meeting with them at the Pentagon.

The individual who has recovered had reportedly traveled to Asia, Winkenwerder pointed out, where most SARS cases have been reported. He added that to the best of his knowledge, no one in close contact with that individual came down with the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, SARS begins with a fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The fever is sometimes associated with chills or other symptoms, including headache, general feeling of discomfort and body aches. Some people diagnosed with SARS may experience mild respiratory problems, the CDC said, noting that after two to seven days, some patients may develop a dry cough and have trouble breathing.

The CDC also reports that SARS appears to spread by close person-to- person contact, such as when an infected person sneezes on or near another, uninfected person.

Medical researchers believe that the corona virus causes SARS, Winkenwerder remarked.

"That is the same family of viruses that causes the common cold," he pointed out, adding there is a diagnostic test being developed to detect the disease.

SARS is "a disease about which we're still learning" more about every day, Winkenwerder emphasized, noting that DoD is working closely with CDC and the World Health Organization.

According to CDC documents, as of April 28, there are 52 reported probable cases of SARS within the United States, including two in Hawaii. Thus far, there have been no deaths in the U.S. attributed to SARS.

As of April 30, according to WHO, the total number of SARS cases reported worldwide was 5,663, a number that includes 372 deaths.

CDC Director Dr. Julie L. Gerberding noted at an April 24 briefing that the SARS "is an atypical pneumonia" with a death rate "running between 5.9 and 6 percent." She praised the "incredible" collaboration between her organization and WHO.

DoD has "people who are in daily contact with the experts around the world on this disease," Winkenwerder pointed out, noting senior DoD leaders are receiving daily reports on the SARS situation.

DoD's Global Emerging Infection Surveillance organization has been actively searching for possible SARS cases, Winkenwerder noted.

Also, he continued, researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., are currently involved in testing anti-viral agents that might be effective against SARS.

DoD is endeavoring "to be as supportive as we can to the U.S. civilian health authorities and others around the world," Winkenwerder asserted. He added that DoD has issued health affairs guidance about SARS to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders worldwide. That guidance, he added, is slated for updates.

The Defense Department recently directed that its military and civilian personnel make only mission-essential trips to China and Hong Kong.

SARS was first diagnosed in rural China last November and then spread to Hong Kong. More than 25 countries have reported cases.

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