Air Force relies on medical groups to combat illnesses
In this staged photo, Senior Airman Osniel Diaz, 42nd Medical Group public health professional, peers down a line of sick service members during this flu season. To date, the clinic has issued more than 6,500 influenza vaccines for this season’s outbreak. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Senior Airman Christopher Stoltz)
by Airman 1st Class William J. Blankenship
Air University Public Affairs
2/12/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Over the course of history, disease has affected the world's militaries. From malaria and yellow fever, to influenza, the battle with disease continues.
Each year, Air University schools host more than 50,000 students at its in-residence courses, and with flu season taking its toll, an illness outbreak could affect a high number of Air Force personnel.
Imagine reporting for the first day at the Air Force Senior NCO Academy exchanging handshakes and pleasantries with fellow classmates. You notice a couple classmates coughing periodically. Within the first lecture, the person next to you starts feeling ill. By the end of the week, the bug has spread through the class, exchanged from one member to others and back again. Before class graduation, nearly every student in the room is affected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from September to January more than 22,000 patients were diagnosed with influenza across the nation. This widespread, annual battle with the flu has caused all but two states in the U.S to be categorized as having widespread influenza activity this year.
Maxwell's 42nd Medical Group is charged with fighting the spread of this type of illness. To date, the clinic has issued more than 6,500 influenza vaccines for this season's outbreak.
"Any place that large numbers of people are gathered is a potential site for the spread of infectious diseases," said Dr. (Capt.) Charles Pace, 42nd MDG pediatrician. "Since our active- duty population is required to be up to date on immunizations, the risk is reduced, but still present."
Communicable diseases such as influenza also pose a threat to class instructors and even families.
"Even though service members are immunized, diseases such as influenza can still be contracted and potentially passed to family members," said Pace.
To prepare for these realities, Department of Defense medics continually train to treat patients, but keeping up with the next wave of illnesses can be challenging as history has shown.
During the Civil War, more than one million men suffered from malaria, and 10, 000 did not survive. This number multiplied times six during World War II when 60,000 died not from war related injuries, but malaria. After the war, the U.S. attempted to eradicate the illness, but malaria still kills millions worldwide each year.
Service members travel abroad, making viral and epidemic challenges unique to the military involved. Each year, AU host hundreds of international officers, which can put them at risk of exposure to flu strains common within the U.S. and can put Airmen at risk of exposure to foreign diseases.
In 1918, the Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people, equaling 20 - 40 percent of the worldwide population. In the U.S., the virus affected 675, 000. Though doctors were unable to treat the Spanish flu, the outbreak ran its course and died out on its own without an antidote.
Today, the Maxwell public health flight is charged with minimizing the chances such an outbreak would affect thousands of people or the mission.
"Public health is prepared to conduct communicable disease interviews, trace potential contacts to determine origins and exposures and provide patient education on stopping the spread of disease," explained Senior Airman Osniel Diaz, 42nd MDG public health professional.
The need to stop the disease can be critical at Maxwell due to student travel costs for classes. In some cases, the loss of training days can result in a student having to leave the course prior to graduation and return at a later date.
"The commandant is allowed to make a judgment call when it comes to students missing days because of illness," said Master Sgt. Erin Panas, Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education instructor. "If extenuating circumstances were to affect a student at any enlisted PME course, then commandants also have the option to administratively release the student from the course. An administrative release allows a student to return to an enlisted PME course when the extenuating circumstance has been resolved."
Although these concerns may seem farfetched, an illness outbreak at some AU schools could affect a high number of Air Force leaders. Schools such as Air Command and Staff College host student from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as more than 65 partner nationals around the globe.
While it may seem daunting to prevent the passing of germs, medical experts here say the best defense against viral outbreaks is a good offense.
"Risk of illness is always present and there are a few things we can do to help mitigate that risk," said Pace. "Hand washing is most important. Taking care to cover coughs and sneezes in public is also important. Staying home when you have flu-like symptoms with fevers is good advice. As long as people are following these general guidelines, the risk of attending classes is not any greater than the risk involved in our other day-to-day interactions with people."