By Rick ScavettaJune 22, 2009
NAIROBI, Kenya -- Should a pandemic flu, such as H1N1 influenza, make its way into East Africa, a Kenya-based U.S. Army medical research team is in place to assist local officials in detecting diseases.
In early June 2009, Africa's first case of H1N1 influenza - known commonly as swine flu - was detected in Egypt, according to press reports.
Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians at the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit-Kenya (USAMRU-K) remain on the lookout for pandemic flu, said the unit's commander, Col. Scott Gordon.
"We have the capability to detect pandemic influenza, staffing eight surveillance sites around Kenya that take daily specimens looking for the flu," said Gordon, a medical entomologist from Silver Springs, Maryland, who holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and has served 25 years in uniform.
By mid-June, press reports announced another H1N1 case in Morocco.
Millions of Africans live with weakened immune systems, often due to HIV, in rural areas away from healthcare - a major concern, should the flu strike on the continent.
"Kenya is currently capable of detecting swine flu," Gordon said. "We use the latest real-time diagnostic technologies. U.S. funding helped rebuild the Kenya National Influenza Center in Nairobi. We've made sure Kenya has state-of-the-art equipment and staffing to enhance their capabilities significantly, to include detecting swine flu."
One of five U.S. military research overseas labs, USAMRU-K was first established in 1969 at Kenya's invitation to study trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly. In 1973, the unit was permanently set up in Nairobi, working through an agreement with the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
Altogether, USAMRU-K has 11 soldiers, two Army civilians and roughly 350 Kenyan contractors. A mix of doctors, nurses, scientists, and laboratory technicians work together to research, test, and prevent disease.
"Our unit, together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, supports the Kenya Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation. Any positive H1N1 specimens would be immediately reported to the Kenyan officials. We would then support them in the subsequent public health response," Gordon said.
Recently, USAMRU-K has also assisted the government of Seychelles test suspected H1N1 cases, all of which have turned out to be negative for the disease, Gordon said.
Much of the USAMRU-K's work is centered on malaria research and anti-malarial drug testing, to include producing vaccines that help African and U.S. Soldiers. Other research helps people facing HIV, diarrheal disease, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea.
To accomplish their missions, the unit collaborates with Kenyan health officials, U.S. civilian and military organizations, private companies, and universities, in addition to nongovernmental organizations and non-profit foundations.
With the establishment of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and U.S. Army Africa, USAMRU-K is now coordinating its established missions with new initiatives on the African continent. In late June, Gordon will visit U.S. Army Africa headquarters in Vicenza, Italy, to meet with several key leaders to discuss a way forward for Army medical missions and mentoring in Africa.
"We can serve as a resource for U.S. Army Africa. We staff subject matter experts on diseases that soldiers may face in Africa," Gordon said. "Plus, many of our activities fall into U.S Africa Command's strategic plan of building capacity among African militaries and humanitarian assistance on the continent."