EXCLUSIVE: Rare virus poses new threat to troops

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | U.S. military officials sent a medical team to a remote outpost in southern Afghanistan this week to take blood samples from members of an Army unit after a soldier in the unit died from an Ebola-like virus.

Dr. Jim Radike, an expert in internal medicine and infectious diseases at the Role 3 Trauma Hospital at Kandahar Air Field, told The Washington Times that Sgt. Robert David Gordon, 22, from River Falls, Ala., died Sept. 16 from what turned out to be Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever after he was bitten by a tick. The virus is transmitted by infected blood and can be carried by ticks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dr. Radike, who is with the Navy, said the medical team “will be taking blood samples and the results may take several weeks to get back.” He called it “a precautionary measure.”

Dr. Radike did not say how many individuals would be tested or why the military had waited until now to act. The unit involved is the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry division, A-Company 2-1 Infantry.

The news comes as the Pentagon disclosed that it has sent 150,000 doses of vaccine for the H1N1 swine flu virus to Qatar for distribution to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan - half of what U.S. Central Command has requested. More than a half dozen Afghans have died of the disease, which apparently was transmitted to the country by foreigners.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters Wednesday, “We’re doing everything within our power to make sure our guys downrange get this [vaccine] as soon as possible.”

Dr. Radke said the hemorrhagic fever is similar to Ebola “in that the end there is internal degeneration and external bleeding. From the Black Sea to upper Turkey, you’ll see a dozen or more cases a year. Afghanistan falls right in the middle.”

The disease was first reported in the Crimea in 1944, then in the Congo in 1956, according to the World Health Organization. An outbreak was reported eight years ago in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan.

Dr. Radke said U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan not only have to worry about the Taliban but also a host of ailments not commonly found in the West.

“Diarrheal diseases, typhoid fever, skin ailments and tuberculosis are some of what we have to be on the lookout for,” he said. “It’s important for soldiers to get medical help early on if they are not feeling well or have been bitten. It’s too risky not to have a doctor take a look at it.”

Dr. Radike also advised soldiers to “wash their hands often; it’s as simple as that.”

Symptoms of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever include sudden fever, dizziness, neck pain, aching muscles, soreness in the eyes and sensitivity to light. Early on, nausea, vomiting and sore throat occur.

The virus incubation period depends on how the virus was acquired. If the infection is via tick bite, the incubation period is roughly one to three days, with a maximum of nine days, Dr. Radike said. If the illness is not caught early, it is often fatal, he said. The mortality rate is 30 percent, according to the CDC.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey French, Sgt. Gordon’s battalion commander, told The Times from Forward Operating Base Ramrod, to the west of Kandahar City, that the soldier’s death “was a tragic loss for everyone.”

It started out as a small bite on the foot, Col. French said.

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