U.S. Army research unit marks four decades in Kenya
By Rick Scavetta, U.S. Army AfricaNovember 8, 2009
NAIROBI, Kenya - Soldiers and Army civilians assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit-Kenya are celebrating 40 years of research in East Africa.
USAMRU-K, known locally to Kenyans as the Walter Reed Project, is growing exponentially, said the unit's commander, U.S. Army Col. Scott Gordon.
"Our 40th anniversary comes amid one of USAMRU-K's greatest undertaking. Our Kisumu field station is part of a three-year study into what may become the world's first malaria vaccine for children," Gordon said.
Known as MAL-55, the study is testing the efficacy of a vaccine, which has been in development for more than 20 years. USAMRU-K has one of 11 sites in seven countries where the study is being conducted.
"Historically, we've focused on malaria - although it was sleeping sickness that brought us into Kenya 40 years ago," Gordon said. "In the last few years we've been expanding, taking a closer look at into TB, diarrhea, HIV and other areas."
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.
USAMRU-K has 10 U.S. Army Soldiers, two Army civilians and over 400 Kenyan contractors - a mix of doctors, nurses, scientists and laboratory technicians who work together to research, test and prevent disease. They collaborate with Kenyan health officials, U.S. civilian and military organizations, private companies and universities, plus nongovernmental organizations and non-profit foundations.
With the establishment of U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Army Africa, USAMRU-K is now coordinating its established missions with new initiatives on the continent. U.S. Army Africa is seeking ways to partner with and support USAMRU-K as it goes about building medical research capability and capacity in Africa, said Col. Alfonso Alarcon, U.S. Army Africa's senior medical officer.
During Natural Fire 10, a disaster relief and humanitarian aid exercise held recently in Uganda, East African military and civic leaders responded to a simulated pandemic influenza scenario during a table top exercise. Medical expertise in Africa, like that found at USAMRU-K, can play a key part in helping the U.S. Army and its partner nations to respond to ongoing medical issues and to prepare for crisis response to emerging diseases, Alacorn said.
"They have a 40-year presence on the continent, conducting medical research that is relevant to U.S. and Africa," Alacorn said. "We're looking forward to seeing USAMRU-K work with other African entities and have U.S. Army Africa support them in future efforts."