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US Military Actively Protecting Members from Zika Virus

The US military has been actively engaged in the battle against Zika, even as more than 100 members of the armed services have been diagnosed with the mosquito-borne virus.

The US military has been actively engaged in the battle against Zika, even as more than 100 members of the armed services have been diagnosed with the mosquito-borne virus.

According to data provided to Contagion from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch of the Department of Defense (DoD), through the end of August, 108 military health-system benefits recipients have received confirmed diagnoses of Zika virus infection. These include 81 active service members and 18 dependents of said same. The remaining nine cases involve retired service members. All of the cases were identified in countries in which the virus was already known to have been present.

The numbers reflect the number of confirmed cases of Zika virus infection among US military personnel since DoD began testing for the disease earlier this year.

Not surprisingly, given the relatively small number of cases, “DoD operations have not been impacted,” agency spokesperson Maj. Ben Sakrisson told Contagion. Maj. Sakrisson added that the DoD issued “direction to medical and force health protection personnel on Zika” in February “concerning prevention, and diagnoses of Zika virus infection in order to mitigate potential risks to their personnel and their families.” This is particularly relevant, given the virus’ ongoing emergence in Florida, where DoD has several installations.

For months now, researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research have been working with Harvard University scientists on the development of a vaccine against Zika. They released their preliminary findings in August, and human trials are now underway. In addition, the DoD has authorized emergency use for its medical testing laboratories to perform diagnostic screening for Zika, as needed.

To date, military officials have been following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance concerning local transmission of Zika, which on US soil has thus far been limited to Florida and Puerto Rico. Pregnant DoD personnel traveling or planning to travel to affected areas have been advised “to confer with their health professional on the potential risks associated with Zika,” Maj. Sakrisson said. Additional guidance for pregnant service personnel has been in place for some time, and was revised in August.

“Pregnant service members already stationed at or near an identified local area of Zika transmission may request that their time on station requirement be waived or that an exception be granted to allow them to depart early,” Maj. Sakrisson said. “Early permanent change of station waivers or exceptions may be granted at the discretion of the Service concerned in accordance with applicable assignment policies and regulations. Pregnant Service members with orders to or near an identified local area of Zika transmission may request assignment to another location or a delay in their assignment until after delivery of their baby and convalescence, within applicable assignment policies and regulations. Services may, at their election, and within applicable assignment policies and regulations, send pregnant Service members to a temporary duty location outside of the identified local area of Zika transmission.”

Also last month, the Armed Forces Pest Management Board issued Zika-specific guidance for “enhanced vector control and surveillance measures,” Maj. Sakrisson added. He noted that all DoD installations conduct some form of mosquito trapping as part of “integrated vector control and surveillance programs,” based upon knowledge of the types of vectors expected locally. In addition, public health officials on more than 180 military installations within Aedes aegypti and/or Aedes albopictus mosquito's potential habitat, as outlined by the CDC, “have been directed to enhance their existing surveillance program to specifically look for these vectors, in addition to other vectors of interest to their base/installation,” he said.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.