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American Forces Press Service

DoD Ready to Bolster Medical, Health Support for Tsunami Victims

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 2005 - The Defense Department is ready, willing and prepared to provide medical assistance as needed to relieve tsunami victims and help stem widespread disease, the Pentagon's top doctor told reporters here today.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary defense for health affairs, said DoD is working closely with affected nations, other U.S. government agencies and nongovernmental agencies to determine what's needed and get help to the region as quickly as possible.

The top request right now is for mortuary affairs experts to help deal with the roughly 150,000 people killed during the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Other challenges are getting food, water and medical supplies to the region for the survivors, including hundreds of thousands living in crowded, unsanitary conditions that Winkenwerder called "breeding grounds for disease."

The goal is to "help stem a second wave of disaster," including epidemics such as e. coli, cholera, Hepatitis A and other waterborne diarrheal illnesses, as well as respiratory diseases such as measles. In the weeks ahead, Winkenwerder said, malaria and dengue also could become health risks.

Winkenwerder also said loose and floating material continues to cause injuries as cleanup efforts begin.

DoD "is prepared to provide a significant enhanced effort" to help meet the health and medical needs of the region, Winkenwerder said. The department is focusing its response in two general areas: transportable medical facilities and logistics support.

Winkenwerder said the military could fly as many as eight field hospitals to the region very quickly and has "plenty of medical materials on hand within Pacific Command" to contribute, if needed.

In addition, Air Force Lt. Gen. (Dr.) "Peach" Taylor Jr., Air Force surgeon general, said the Air Force could contribute smaller, modular hospital units that fit onto C-17 or C-130 aircraft. One, a 25-bed modular hospital that fits onto two C-17 aircraft, is sitting on the runway in Yokota Air Base, Japan, awaiting orders to deploy.

Winkenwerder said these hospitals could deploy with or without medical staffs, depending on need. However, he said, using medical providers from the region able to speak the local language generally would be preferable.

The Navy is preparing the hospital ship Mercy to ensure it is ready to respond, if called. The ship could reach the region within two to three weeks, Winkenwerder said.

Winkenwerder said the United States is "better prepared than we've ever been" to assist in the Asian crisis, largely because of mass casualty exercises conducted in recent years to prepare for a potential domestic disaster.

"We're here to help. We want to help, and we're prepared to help," he said.

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