Army to honor doctor for fighting deadly viruses
October 10, 2012
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 10, 2012) -- A retired Army doctor who helped develop vaccines to protect troops from meningitis, AIDS, hepatitis, diarrhea, and many other infectious diseases, will be among civilians saluted Thursday.
"His lifetime of dedication to military medicine has resulted in ... dramatic, positive impacts on the resiliency and readiness of our Soldiers," reads an excerpt from the Outstanding Civilian Service Award, which will be presented to Dr. Edmund C. Tramont.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno will recognize Tramont during a Twilight Tattoo at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va.
Tramont graduated from Boston University School of Medicine in 1966 and two years later he entered the Army, where his military medical career began. During his 23 years of active Army service, he compiled achievements including establishing infectious disease clinical and research programs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Walter Reed Institute of Research in 1970.
He also developed policies concerning HIV/AIDS in 1986 -- a new and unknown disease at that time -- which were compassionate toward those infected, while they also maintained force health protection and readiness. Those forward-looking policies remain in force today and have been a blueprint for civilian policies.
"Infectious diseases have always been a big issue for the military and at the time the military had no programs," he said. "I established the Army's first clinical infectious disease training program and the Air Force and Navy soon followed (our lead). I happened to be at the right place at the right time."
"On the research front, the Army has always emphasized prevention of diseases for force health protection and readiness and in that context, the Army has been directly or indirectly involved in the research and development of more vaccines than any other organization in the world -- over 30 presently licensed vaccines," he said.
Also while in the Army, he helped develop the Meningococcal vaccine. That vaccine protects against Neisseria meningitidis, a bacterium that causes meningitis, meningococcemia, septicemia, and sometimes septic arthritis, carditis and pneumonia, and can especially be a threat in basic training. He also designed and implemented vaccine trials for gonorrhea, shigella and HIV and participated in the development of the Adenovirus and Hepatitis B vaccines. Shigella can cause severe dysentery, is spread by flies and is of particular threat to troops in combat.
Besides doing research on infectious diseases in the Army, he also cared for patients. In fact, as a medical resident in 1968, he helped care for the ailing former President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was dying of heart disease.
"Despite being bedridden, (Eisenhower) was lucid and we talked about everything from golf and war to politics and life in general," he said. "I wish I were older and wiser then because I did not have a sufficient base of knowledge to appreciate all he had to say. If I could go back, I'd have a lot of questions to ask him."
After retiring from the Army in 1991, Tramont was recruited by the University of Maryland to restructure its Medical Biotechnology Center along lines similar to the the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. While there, he established the Institute of Human Virology.
In 2001, he became director of the AIDS Division of the National Institutes of Health's Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. During his tenure there, he helped lay the groundwork for the Army's collaborative efforts with NIH to produce vaccines that protect Soldiers and others from the infections indigenous to the tropics such as the Ebola, Marburg and Dengue viruses.
Tramont called NIH's collaboration with the Army and other services "manna from heaven," explaining that "NIH does the best basic or discovery research in the world, but is not organized to do the necessary field work and clinical trials in the developing world to determine the efficacy of those vaccines in the field."
"On the other hand, the military's medical research is oriented toward making products, or the development portion of the research and development process," he explained.
"They have labs set up on every continent except Antarctica and can do the kinds of field work and testing necessary for the vaccine and drugs against pathogens indigenous to that part of the world," he said. "In addition, the Army has military medical partnerships with other countries to provide surveillance on diseases in those remote areas of the world that could pose a threat to future military operations. And, the results are helpful to all of mankind. For example, the clean water we take for granted in the USA was spawned by efforts to protect troops against diarreheal diseases during our Civil War."
Tramont cited the Army's recent work in Uganda to find a vaccine for the Ebola virus and with Thailand for HIV and Dengue.
He said the Army -- in collaboration with NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, universities and pharmaceutical companies -- is involved in the research and development of "more vaccines than any other organization in the world."
Because of ordinary stresses on young persons in the military, they have greater risk for getting sexually transmitted diseases, he said.
"Soldiers are two to three time more likely to get STIs (sexually transmitted infections) than their civilian counterparts in peacetime and as high as 50 times greater during wartime deployments," he said. "They're young, often serving in faraway places, lonely and under great stress."
For example, he said the incidence of gonorrhea among U.S. troops during World War II hampered their ability to take the Italian town of Anzio.
"This phenomenon isn't something new," he explained. "It's gone on since military history was first recorded."
Besides STIs, Soldiers have encountered a host of deadly viruses. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army lost the battle for Quebec in part because the Americans from rural areas were less immune to the smallpox virus than were the British from urban areas and were forced to withdraw due to the greater incidence of the illness, he said. On the other hand, he continued, the U.S. Army's campaigns against the Indians were made easier because the Indians were even more susceptible to the smallpox virus than were the Soldiers.
At the start of World War II in the Pacific theater, about a third of U.S. Soldiers were at one point unable to fight because of malaria, dengue fever and diarrhea, he said.
In the European/North African Theater, on the other hand, many Germans soldiers succumbed to shigellosis, a type of bacillary dysentery, contributing to their loss at the battle of el Alamein, which many military historians conclude turned the tide in favor of the Allies.
Tramont is certain that the Army's continued involvement in vaccination work will pay big dividends in the coming years as new, often deadly microbes emerge.
He explained the threat.
"There are more bacteria living in your gut than there are people on this Earth. Those bacteria have sex and they pass genes back and forth. Sooner or later, a previously susceptible microbe like gonorrhea will pick up genes, which will allow it to be resistant to antibiotics.
"Every single microbe, when it's exposed enough to antibiotics, will become resistant to antibiotics over time," he continued. "For example, penicillin was very effective against most pathogens when it was discovered 75 years ago, but today, except for syphilis, can not be counted on to be effective. That's natural evolution. The microbe evolves to become resistant and takes over. Today we face resistant microorganisms causing wound infections in our troops wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq and we don't yet have the reliable antimicrobials to treat them."
Tramont doesn't predict another bubonic plague or "Black Death" that killed an estimated 100 million in Europe and Asia in the mid-14th century. Rather, he thinks the next deadly worldwide infectious disease will be a respiratory virus, such as pandemic influenza or SARS.
However, he said the NIH and others are making great strides in producing a universal influenza vaccine. He said there's already a vaccine for Hepatitis B and HPV significantly reducing the incidenc of liver and cervical cancer caused by those microbes and the Holy Grail is finding a vaccine for other cancers.
"It could happen in my lifetime," he said with a note of caution mixed with optimism.
As to being presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by Odierno, Tramont said it was "quite a surprise" and that he feels "humbled and honored."
The award recognizes Tramont "as a true ambassador for Army medicine. (His) efforts to establish important medical research have resulted in life-saving breakthroughs in medical training and biomedical research."
As the associate director for Special Projects, he is responsible for establishing collaborations between NIAID/NIH and the military for militarily-relevant infectious diseases. Tramont said he will continue that work at the NIH with great zeal and passion.
(Editor's note: Others who will be honored at the Twilight Tattoo, beginning at 5 p.m., Thursday, on Whipple Field are: David Feherty, co-founder of Feherty's Troops First Foundation; Mike Conklin, with the Sentinels of Freedom; Bonnie Carroll, president of the Tragedy Assistance Program, known as TAPS; and Steve Dunning, co-director of NBC Universal's Veterans Network and a member of the Got Your 6 Campaign Steering Committee.)