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Different AIDS Strain Threatens Troops Deployed to Thailand

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

CAMP H. M. SMITH, Hawaii, July 30, 1996 – Off-duty American servicemen looking for a "good time" in Thailand take heed: HIV/AIDS there is predominately a heterosexually-transmitted disease.

Ninety-five percent of all new AIDS cases in Thailand are of the Type E strain, said Dr. (Rear Adm.) William J. McDaniel, U.S. Pacific Command surgeon. Unlike the Type B strain predominant in the United States, McDaniel said, Type E is very easily transmitted heterosexually.

For military personnel visiting Thailand, "Abstinence is the best bet," said Dr. (Lt. Cmdr.) Laurel May of Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit Six, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. However, May added, surveys of American service members who have deployed to Thailand reveal many of them have sexual encounters.

Although DoD routinely tests service members for HIV, which precedes full-blown AIDS, the tests do not reveal strains, said Navy Dr. (Capt.) H. James Beecham III, head of tropical medicine and May's colleague at Pearl Harbor. "Testing for the strain is a tedious and expensive process, so we only do it in investigative and research settings." Research his unit conducted on the strain reveals Type E may more easily attach to vaginal tissue than other strains, he said.

Alarmed at the escalating problem, the Thai government has sponsored extensive medical research into developing an AIDS vaccination. U.S. Army researchers in Bangkok also are grappling with the problem and helping test possible vaccines, May said.

"We work closely with the Thais on vaccine protocols," McDaniel said. "But consequently, we also work closely with our folks going in there, giving them a tremendous amount of information about AIDS and how to protect themselves. We have managed to prevent all but a few isolated cases."

American contributions to the battle against AIDS has paid big dividends for Thailand, the admiral said. "We examine 60,000 of their military inductees every year," he said. "In 1983, almost 9 percent of the inductees was HIV-positive. Now, less than 3 percent is infected." The Thai military does not prevent HIV-positive men from serving.

McDaniel said he's concerned as well with yet another strain of AIDS, Type C, prevalent in China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Type C also is easily transmitted heterosexually, he said.

"It seems reasonable that AIDS in that part of the world may be either Type C or Type E, which is a lot more daunting to us that Type B," he said. "We need to know about these strains and prepare vaccines."

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