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Emerging infectious disease training event bolsters medical readiness

By Senior Airman Dustin Mullen 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

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A team of U.S. military doctors, public health specialists and members of various other career fields participated in a week-long Emerging Infectious Diseases Training Event June 4-8 in Panama during the New Horizons 2018 humanitarian training exercise. The event, aimed at enhancing attendee cultural competencies and professional knowledge, consisted of briefings, lectures, and a day of field study.

In collaboration with the Gorgas Institute, University of Panama, and the Panamanian Ministry of Health, the team studied various diseases, the vectors that carry them, and the ways Panama is combating the diseases.

“Infectious diseases are a huge issue for Southern Command when it thinks about force health protection in this region,” said Lt. Col. Brian Neese, 346th Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron commander. “We wanted to look at infectious diseases from the many different disciplines that come into it. Clinical medicine, preventative medicine, public health, laboratory specialties, expeditionary capabilities with aerospace medicine and collaboration with Global Health Specialists from the Navy; we brought all that together in this event.”

Throughout the week, the U.S. military doctors participated in lectures from Panamanian infectious disease experts and field studies of possible virus-carrying wildlife and insects.

New Horizons exercises have taken place in many countries throughout Central and South America, and training opportunities such as the Emerging Infectious Diseases Training Event allow military doctors to expand their cross cultural and global health knowledge.

“I have been really struck by the strategic importance of Panama in the United States’ biosecurity,” said Lt. Col. Heather Yun, 346 EMDOS infectious disease physician. “There are a lot of biological threats here in Central America, or that try to come here from South America through human migration.”

Due to the geographic location of Panama, the importance the country places on controlling diseases greatly benefits the Unites States, as well as other Central American countries.

“Panamanian efforts to halt infectious disease transmission functions as a barrier for transmission of viruses such as yellow fever,” Yun said, noting Panama’s disease control methods. “If we didn’t have that kind of surveillance here, then the U.S. would be at increased risk of encroachment from a lot of vector-borne diseases.”

The agency leading the disease research efforts is the Gorgas Institute. Founded in 1929, this world-renowned organization’s mission is to promote public health and contribute to research and teaching for the benefit of the population.

“The first thing that strikes me about Panamanians is that they are extremely organized, particularly the Gorgas Institute which is a jewel,” said Lt. Col Mark Breidenbaugh, 346 EMDOS entomologist. “They have quality people and are funded at a level where they can do the work they need to do. They are doing cutting-edge molecular biology so they can recognize genetic material in their samples and therefore recognize exactly what kind of virus they are working with.”

Getting the opportunity to work with Panamanian doctors can better equip U.S. doctors to recognize and react to various tropical diseases.

“Anytime you go overseas to a different culture, different language and a different way of doing things, it only increases readiness,” Yun said. “Because of the assets they have here, there is a lot of direct translatability between what we do in the U.S. We are always looking for ways to collaborate on research projects.”

Beyond just tropical diseases, creating bonds between the different specialties and organizations can aid in future research.

“I am thankful to come down here and do this because I believe in the global health interactions we are doing,” Breidenbaugh said. “In one sense, we are all diplomats. We are representing our country on an individual basis. I have already had requests from Panamanians to put them in touch with certain researchers I know.”


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