Preventing pests, disease part of prevention professionals' post
May 21, 2009
Ignorance may be bliss, but it's also a sign that one special unit on Fort McPherson is doing its job well.
The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine-South, although dwarfed by the massive organizations (such as U.S. Army Forces Command, U.S. Army Central and U.S. Army Reserve Command) it shares Fort McPherson with, plays an important role in maintaining the wellness of the staff of these organizations, as well as the health of the entire military community in the southeastern United States.
"One of our goals is to keep Soldiers safe and minimize disease," said Maj. Dereck Irminger, rear detachment officer in charge. "If Soldiers are sick, they aren't available to do their mission."
The USACHPPM-South staff, which consists of 39 individuals, both Civilian and military, all in the preventive medicine field, helps control potential health hazards through numerous ways, Irminger said.
Ways include performing screening tests on specimens collected from other posts, controlling pest populations and, most importantly, educating people on prevention methods.
In this sense, Irminger likens the unit to a consultation firm, whose clients include installation hospitals and environmental offices. USACHPPM-South services installations across 10 states: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
With such a large area to cover, Irminger said approximately 20 to 30 percent of the unit's personnel are on road at any time.
The importance of preventing, fighting and controlling diseases can be seen in mortality rates in earlier conflicts such as the Civil War, where disease related deaths numbered more than double the battlefield deaths.
Although many advances in medicine have been made in the decades since, Irminger said it is still important to work hard to stay ahead of diseases and trends, which are always able to mutate and cause outbreaks, as with current diseases such as West Nile virus, avian bird flu and the H1N1, or novel swine flu. Personnel from USACHPPM-South have worked on all three of these diseases, Irminger said.
The USACHPPM-South staff stays ahead of disease and gathers information on these enemies via a variety of screening tests, said Denny Kuhr, an entomologist with the unit.
Kuhr said these tests, which are conducted on installations and then analyzed at Fort McPherson, help identify potential hazards and come up with controls.
Using this information, like surgical strikes against al- Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, the USACHPPM-South targets the breeding grounds of pests.
The variety of specimens handled is one of the things that interests Kuhr and has kept him on the job for nearly two decades. Kuhr joined the unit in 1990, two years after it was stood up at Fort McPherson.
"One day it's snakes, another spiders, birds, ticks or mosquitoes. We deal with all pests that are a detriment to human health," said Kuhr, a former park ranger with a degree in biology.
Some of the challenge comes from the fact that different controls are needed for individual pests, Kuhr said, and that differences in pests can be very minute, especially in insects like mosquitoes that contain many different varieties within the species.
USACHPPM-South personnel say they face a challenging line of work that most of the population isn't aware of, but one that leads to personal satisfaction and lives saved.
"It's difficult to put dollar value on it (the work performed)," Kuhr said, but added one particular story does give an idea of its benefit.
Kuhr said last year he was called into the Army and Air Force Exchange Services warehouse on Fort Gillem to examine a batch of contaminated products coming in from China. After observing the products, Kuhr believed the products contained a foreign grain beetle, and he went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for confirmation.
The confirmation led to a control being put in place to stop the infestation from spreading to other products in the warehouse and to other installations where those products were going to be sent.
Although the unit is bound for a new home soon, its staff will still provide the same cutting-edge public health services, and perhaps more, to DoD entities currently supported, Irminger said. The unit's move to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is set to be completed by Sept. 30. Twenty-six personnel have already relocated there.
"That's when the lights go out and the doors are locked," Irminger said.
At its new home, the unit will be adding a lab science division to increase its disease surveillance capabilities.
The unit already contains divisions for field preventive medicine, industrial hygiene, ectomolological sciences, environmental health engineering and laboratory sciences. These divisions work with other government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The addition of the laboratory sciences division was one desire the unit wanted to get to gain information on diseases to better continue their quest to help promote health and prevent disease, according to Irminger, who said, "The more you know about it the better you can fight it."