Army investigates serious pneumonia cases in Iraq

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - An Army medical team is heading to Iraq to look into what caused 15 serious cases of pneumonia that include two deaths among troops in the region, the U.S. military said yesterday.

The 15 cases, each of which required medical evacuation and use of a ventilator, were among about 100 cases of pneumonia that have been reported in the region since March 1, according to the Army Surgeon General's office.

Three military personnel remain hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, with one of them on a ventilator, said Lyn Kukral, a spokeswoman for the surgeon general's office.

No new serious cases have been reported this month, she added.

The specific causes of death for the two soldiers are under investigation, the surgeon general's office said in a statement.

Researchers have identified no infectious agent common in all the cases, nor has evidence been found linking any of the cases to exposure to chemical or biological weapons, environmental toxins or severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to the statement.

"There are a lot of different reasons why one can get pneumonia. And sand or other things in the air are one of the possible causes," Kukral said.

Two doctors - one an epidemiologist and the other an infectious disease specialist - have been dispatched to the medical center in Germany, while the Army Medical Department personnel team for Iraq consists of physicians, microbiologists and technicians, Kukral said.

In Iraq, the team will review records and data, conduct interviews, and sample air, soil and water, according to the surgeon general's office. Kukral said no timetable has been established for the investigators to report their findings.

"The teams are going to take whatever time they need to do the right job, the thorough job of getting and analyzing the information about the pneumonia cases," she said, adding that researchers will seek to identify preventive measures that can be taken to protect troops from further incidents.

According to figures from the surgeon general's office, the latest pneumonia cases do not "exceed expectations" for the size of the force. It reports that annually in the overall Army, there are about nine cases per 10,000 soldiers of pneumonia serious enough to warrant hospitalization. Army officials said recently that more than 167,000 soldiers are involved in the Iraqi operation and in the Southwest Asia region overseen by U.S. Central Command.

Although the news release from the surgeon general's office noted that "death from pneumonia in a young, otherwise healthy population is rare," it said that 17 soldiers died from pneumonia or from complications from the illness from 1998 through last year.

The latest serious Army cases began in March, when two were reported. Two were also reported in April, one in May, six in June and four last month, the statement said. Most of them occurred in Iraq, Kukral said, adding that others were reported in Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Qatar. The people were from different units, and the cases occurred in different parts of the region.

Kukral said at least one of the 15 was a U.S. Marine, and one was a woman. She said she did not have other data on the cases, such as how many of the infected troops had been in combat.

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