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DoD Advises SARS Precautions

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2003 – The Department of Defense is advising military and civilian personnel to take precaution against the potentially deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The advisory is especially for those traveling in the Far East, where the flu-like virus is believed to have originated.

SARS has killed more than 79 people worldwide and raised concerns within DoD about the potential impact to deploying forces and current operations.

However, Dr. David Tornberg, deputy assistant defense secretary for clinical programs and policy, emphasized that no component in DoD, to include the military services, had a SARS problem. He indicated there have been no reported cases of SARS in DoD.

Tornberg said, however, DoD is "taking precautions" because of concern for military personnel being exposed to the virus and someone subsequently catching the disease.

"Health risk communications have gone out to the force, the combatant commanders are aware of the threat, they're following the disease closely, and they are taking initiatives to protect the troops," Tornberg said.

"It's prudent to be very wary of any communicable disease, or any disease that adversely affects our service personnel, that decreases their efficiency and their combat readiness," he said.

SARS is a mysterious respiratory illness that has flu-like symptoms. Researchers studying the disease have yet to determine its exact cause or origin. Symptoms include fever, body aches, headaches, sore throat, dry cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the syndrome may be associated with other symptoms, including headache, muscular stiffness and loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash and diarrhea.

Tornberg said 90 percent of the people who have SARS- related infections recover uneventfully. "It's only 10 percent [of people] that have severe trouble, and consequences in the worst cases can lead to death," he noted.

As of April 10, the World Health Organization reported 2,781 probable SARS cases in 19 countries. According to CDC, the United States had 166 suspected cases, as of April 9.

Tornberg said that DoD is working with WHO and the CDC to track SARS and reduce the risks for catching the disease.

In doing so, Tornberg said that DoD is discouraging travel to certain Far East countries and asking personnel to follow State Department and CDC travel advisories. He said only "essential travel" should be taken in countries that have high concentrations of SARS cases.

For example, Pacific Command, which includes the area where the virus has been most active, said Defense Department personnel may make only mission-essential trips to China and Hong Kong because of the disease's threat.

SARS is spread by contact with respiratory droplets from people ill with the disease. Despite its easy transmission, the virus appears to have a "relatively low" communicability, Tornberg said.

"To get the disease, you have to be in close contact with someone who has the condition, either an immediate household contact and be in contact with that person on a sustained basis," he said.

Tornberg said that regular hand washing and avoiding people who are ill with flu-like symptom dramatically reduces the risk of transmission.

"Frequent hand washing is critical to eliminating the threat of disease. If people were to do this five times a day, particularly before meals, they'd be a lot safer," he said.

He cautioned everyone to also avoid people who are sick and those who have traveled to Far East countries that have reported the disease. And stay away from someone who is coughing or sneezing, he added.

Tornberg said people who feel sick, have flu-like symptoms and have associated with someone who's been to the Far East should see a doctor.

"I wouldn't wait to seek medical attention -- the sooner, the better," he said.

More guidance on SARS can be found on the DoD Health Affairs Web site at http://www.ha.osd.mil. Information is also available on the CDC site at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars/.

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