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Altitude in Peru presents challenges, won't stop mission

by Tech. Sgt. Kerry Jackson
Task Force New Horizons Peru Public Affairs

6/9/2008 - HUAMANGA, Peru (AFPN) -- The air is a bit thinin the mountainous region of Ayacucho, Peru, where Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine servicemembers are participating in New Horizons-Peru 2008, a humanitarian mission set on improving the quality of life of underprivileged Peruvians.

The altitude in Huamanga is more than 9,000 feet above sea level; almost double the elevation of Denver, Colo. -- not something many servicemembers are used to experiencing -- especially while working at completing heavy-duty construction projects.

It's common for people traveling to extreme altitudes (approximately 8,000 feet and above) to have difficulty breathing, fatigue and insomnia may develop. These are likely symptoms of acute mountain sickness, or AMS, a pathological condition caused by exposure to low air pressure (usually outdoors at high altitudes).

To combat medical issues possibly preventing a successful mission, the New Horizons medical team has maintained a proactive approach to caring for task force personnel affected by AMS by watching for symptoms and encouraging commanders to practice the same vigilance. Doctors have also offered tips and educational information to team members and leadership.

Medics here have also advised doctors at home stations that are sending personnel to support the New Horizons mission to screen those individuals for extreme altitude suitability.

"An individual's starting point, by the very nature of it, increases or decreases the possibility of developing altitude sickness," said Navy Capt. (Dr.) Peter Amato, the New Horizons-Peru senior medical doctor, and a reservist assigned to 4th Marine Air Wing at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass. "Individuals traveling from the oxygen-rich environment of the California coast will have a greater chance of developing altitude sickness than someone traveling from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where there is less oxygen at higher altitudes."

The best prevention is to be in good health, the doctors said. Acute mountain sickness tends to exacerbate health problems and increases the possibility of someone developing the sickness. Someone with heart disease, or lung related health issues like asthma, or sleep apnea, and are having complications with their condition in their baseline environment should be screened by a doctor before traveling to extreme altitudes.

Physical fitness is another variable in determining whether or not an individual develops AMS as active servicemembers are better able to endure low air pressure environments. However, being fit does not make an individual invincible to extreme altitudes.

"We have a military member participating in the exercise who recently ran a 26-mile marathon, and in spite of the conditioning that requires, was so limited by the environmental effect of the altitude that she could only run one and half miles the first few days," said Capt. (Dr.) Ronald Khoury, the New Horizons-Peru medical commander, from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. "So being fit does not protect people from the effects of the high altitude. However, if they slowly increase their activity levels, in due time they will likely return to normal activity levels."

The time needed for an individual to adjust to changing altitudes varies, but studies suggest one to two weeks, Doctor Khoury said. Slowly increasing your activities and paying attention to how your body respondes to high altitude environments is the best defense.

One of the treatments doctors have used for those patients who have suffer from AMS has been pure oxygen consumption. This treatment required a dual effort from both the medical team, as well as the task force contracting officer who went to great lengths in locating oxygen tanks for the task force medical team.

"Master Sgt. Vincent Pfoser and Staff Sgt. Luis Cibrian (the New Horizons contracting team) were able to obtain a local source of medical grade oxygen which solved a critical need given our environment," Doctor Khoury said. "That allowed us to return participants to the mission without requiring evacuation."

"The altitude definitely presents challenges, but we won't let it get us down." said Maj. Matt Joganich, the Task Force New Horizons-Peru commander.

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