War on Terrorism

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On the Ground: Coalition Medics Treat Afghan Troops, Civilians, Prevent Diseases

American Forces Press Service

April 15, 2009 - Coalition forces are helping Afghan civilians and soldiers alike with medical outreach that is curing illnesses, preventing diseases and keeping soldiers and security forces on the job. A Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan dental team provided treatment for Afghan civilians and soldiers in rural villages, while another unit worked to prevent diseases in the area.

In a tent set up to provide dental care, an old man smiled, showing the only two teeth left in his mouth. He was happy because a coalition dentist pulled the last rotten tooth from his mouth. Life suddenly is much more pleasant for him.

The man is Arbov Zacharia, the 52-year-old elder of Qanati village, and he was the first of more than 180 people to have teeth pulled by the task force dental team at a special operations clinic near Firebase Thomas in Heart province's Shindand district.

"The village elder made another appointment to come in and shake my hand," a task force dentist said. "He kept pointing at the extraction site and giving me the thumbs up. It's nice to know your work is appreciated."

Pulling teeth for local residents is a secondary effect of having the dental team at Firebase Thomas. The primary reason for the dental team is to treat coalition personnel, and to keep the missions going.

"We had a team guy who lost a filling, and although it wasn't causing him any pain, if it [had] cracked while we were out on [a mission], he would have required medical treatment, and that would have been two guys out of the fight," a Special Forces team leader said. The task force physician's assistant requested a dental team to fly out and help.

"The biggest thing I can bring is that I can treat them and they don't have to interrupt operations. They can get back to the fight," a dental technician said about his ability to travel around the battlefield treating Special Forces personnel.

The teams treat U.S. personnel first, then the interpreters and the Afghan security guards, who have a high absentee rate due to dental problems. "We lose two to four commandos a week due to dental problems," the physician's assistant said. "They did surgical extractions, fillings, wisdom teeth. ... We ran the whole gamut," he said.

The dentist said the commandos' extractions enabled them to get back to work. "We pulled almost 90 teeth," he said. "That's going to have an impact, because those soldiers will be mission-ready."

The technician gave the commando leadership a dental hygiene class, which he said will prevent future disease and keep the commandos out of the dental chair and in the fight.

Back at the clinic, the team got to spend an additional day pulling teeth, passing out toothpaste and toothbrushes, mixing with the local people and teaching them how to care for their teeth.

Meanwhile, a coalition preventive medical team working in the same rural area around Firebase Thomas tested water, gathered bugs, took air samples and evaluated living and dining facilities on base to try to prevent diseases. One water sample from a dining facility in an Afghan National Army commando compound was yellow-orange, a telltale sign that led to a determination of E. coli bacteria, which can cause diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis A and cholera. The source of the contamination was found to be a broken sewer pipe, which was fixed, and the water was treated with chlorine to kill the bacteria.

"Mostly, we concern ourselves with environmental health threats that might expose [troops] to medical threats," the team captain explained. "Some of these threats are sand flies and mosquitoes, which can carry leishmaniasis, a painful flesh-eating disease that is difficult to treat and can lead to death.

In addition to testing the water, the team assessed the camp for other possible environmental medical threats such as bugs, arthropods, mosquitoes and sand flies, which were collected, sorted and stored daily.

"The other bugs are not medically important to us," the preventive medicine team captain said, because they do not pose a health threat. However, the sand flies and mosquitoes carry malaria and leishmaniasis. Each evening, the team sets out bug traps. In the morning, the traps are collected and the bugs are frozen. In the afternoon, the bugs are sorted by gender and type. The bugs will be sent to a laboratory in Europe for analysis.

The analysis itself doesn't much matter to the Special Forces team leader. "I'm assuming the bugs have leish," he said. "I'm still going to take the same precautions to protect my people, even if the test results come back negative for leish."

Identifying bugs with possible health risks is not enough, the preventive medicine team captain said. The team assessed areas where the pests breed, such as standing water and sand pits, and gave recommendations on how to deal with those areas.

In addition to bugs in the water and air, the team also checked for bugs in the dining facility, and was pleased with the results.

"The dining facility is one of the best I have seen in country," said the preventive medicine team captain during her briefing to the team. "Your cooks are doing a great job of keeping things clean." The dining facility's water was the only water on camp that tested negative for bacteria.

"[The cook] is doing a great job," the physician's assistant said. "We haven't had any illnesses related to the food, which is a compliment to his guys."

This is not the first time the preventive medicine team has assessed a base camp. "We've been to five camps, and we intend to get to as many as we can during this rotation," the team captain said. "Usually, they are pretty thankful once they see the results and recommendations. Usually, they want us to come back and do follow-ups."

Both the team leader and physician's assistant said they want the team to reassess the base in the near future. For now, the team is off to Farah to check on another firebase, and they say they will continue this process either until there is no environmental medical threat or they run out of time and bug traps.

(Compiled from U.S. Forces Afghanistan news releases.)

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