WASHINGTON — Every year, the military has to do battle with an especially cunning and adaptable foe: seasonal influenza.
During the 2010-2011 flu season, more than 600 cases of the flu were reported among troops on active duty (80.1% had been vaccinated prior to illness), with an additional 2,674 cases reported among other Military Health Service (MHS) beneficiaries, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC) Surveillance Report for the 2010-2011 Influenza season. Actual numbers of influenza cases are thought to be much higher because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many people with flu don’t seek medical care and only a small number of those who seek are actually tested.
“I can honestly say that I don’t think there is another infectious disease that impacts military readiness at this point in time more than influenza of known infectious diseases,” Navy Capt. Kevin Russell, MD, director of the AFHSC, told U.S. Medicine.
This year, DoD will have a new tool in its arsenal when it comes to dealing with the flu on the battlefield. The FDA recently cleared two flu kits for the deployed setting. One will be used to test for Influenza A and Influenza B, and the second will allow for the detection and differentiation of influenza subtypes A/H1, A/H3 and 2009 A/H1.
The kits will be used on a 40-pound device known as the Joint Biological Agent Identification and Diagnostic System (JBAIDS). Without these kits, many medical facilities in deployed settings are unable to rapidly diagnose influenza.
Russell said using the tests also could provide early warning in the event of a new flu virus. Detecting new viruses as early as possible can help with preventing the spread of the virus as well as allowing for the timely development of a vaccine, he said.
“I think the challenge will be utilization of this. We may all have tools in our tool chest, but if you don’t take the time to pull them out, they are not going to help anyone,” he said. “That will be the challenge moving into the season.”
Flu prevention is key in the military, because illness can wreak havoc on readiness. All active duty and reserve personnel are required to receive the seasonal vaccination every year, explained Col. Scott Stanek, preventive medicine physician in DoD’s Force Health Protection and Readiness office.
“The goal this year is to exceed 90% immunization of military personnel by the 1st of December,” he said. “The other eligible beneficiaries, the family members, the retirees, they are certainly encouraged to receive immunization as soon as possible.”