MEU medical staff wraps up successful smallpox vaccination

10 Apr 2002 |

For the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) to be combat ready, the Marines and Sailors must be prepared to counter attacks from every conceivable angle, even those that can?t be seen or heard.

Thanks to the coordinated efforts of the MEU's medical staff, consisting of approximately 85 doctors and corpsman, the more than 2,200 Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU (SOC) are now protected from the potentially incapacitating Smallpox virus.
Chemical and biological warfare are among the most dangerous threats facing American military forces in the 21st century. 

Receiving vaccinations for diseases, such as Smallpox, is just as important to ensuring unit success on the battlefield as proper training and ammunition.  It is something the medical staff here takes very seriously, said the 26th MEU's surgeon and senior physician, Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Jadick.

Though the Smallpox virus was successfully eradicated in the United States and other countries around the world in the 1960s, the availability of Smallpox-laced weapons is a threat that has continued to exist until today.  With the current war in Iraq and the threat of chemical or biological weapons very well publicized, military leaders are taking no chances.  "Maybe Iraq has them or maybe not," Jadick said, "but we intend to be prepared as best we can for that possibility."

In a recent Marine Corps' administration message (008/03), the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed that all members of Marine units heading for the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility be vaccinated as soon as possible.

In addition to a weaponized Smallpox attack from the enemy, Jadick described another scenario where Smallpox could be delivered to U.S. troops in the field in a more covert manner. 

With the large number of enemy combatants currently surrendering to American military personnel, enemy military leaders could intentionally infect a large number of their troops with the virus and send them into coalition lines under the guise of surrender and "we may not realize it until it is too late," he said. 

As Saddam Hussein's forces continue to crumble in Iraq, and given the Iraqi military leader's well-publicized willingness to use chemical or biological weapons on his own people, this scenario does not seem too far fetched were it not for the success of the U.S. military's vaccination program.

"We understood what we were doing and we did it right," Jadick said of the ship's vaccination program.  The Albany, N.Y. native said that before they began delivering the vaccine, his medical corpsmen and other medical personnel conducted intensive research for their comprehensive plan.  "The HM1s [hospitalmen first class] put together a sound and reasonable plan and I just approved it," he said.

One of those primarily responsible for developing the plan here was HM1 (Fleet Marine Force) Christopher S. Boswell. The independent duty corpsman from Athens, Ga., said he and the rest of the MEU medical team worked very closely with their counterparts from the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group as both groups prepared to simultaneously administer the vaccine to both the deployed Marines and Sailors of the MEU and the ships' permanent personnel.

Delivering the vaccine aboard ship was not without precedent, however. Boswell explained that the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, also of Camp Lejeune, NC, administered the vaccine without incident aboard ship recently prior to their going ashore to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.
One of the primary potential side effects that the medical staff worked hard to prevent was any case of vaccinia.  Vaccinia is the accidental spread of the pox vaccine to other parts of the body, Boswell said.

Though this could cause harmful side effects, Boswell explained that potential side effects from the vaccine are not as serious as many thought, or may think, since the vaccine does not contain the Smallpox virus.  The vaccine is actually made up of a small dose of another 'pox-type virus' that is similar to smallpox.  When the body builds up anti-bodies to this serious, but less harmful virus, it is also protected from Smallpox, he said.

To prevent these side effects, the medical staff here mounted a relentless information campaign to ensure all personnel were fully aware of the proper procedures for caring for their vaccination sites.

Before receiving the vaccine, Navy and Marine Corps personnel here received a steady stream of information via brochures, videotaped briefings over the ships' internal television networks and smaller classes taught by medical personnel.  Each patient was counseled individually once more as they were vaccinated.

The primary theme of this information campaign was the importance of personal hygiene.  Hand-washing, immediately washing clothing or bedding accidentally exposed to the vaccination site and keeping the site covered with a band-aid were of primary concern for the health and well being of the troops.

The MEU medical staff worked hard to hammer these points home by passing out more than 18,000 band-aids and 2,800 bottles of Iso Gel, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on the USS Iwo Jima alone, Boswell said.

An unavoidable side effect of the vaccine that the medical staff also had to consider during planning was that a substantial percentage of those vaccinated would likely develop flu-like symptoms on the sixth or seventh day after receiving the vaccine.  To prevent an overwhelming number of personnel being sick at the same time, the medical staff developed a schedule to vaccinate all members of the MEU at different times over a two-week period.  For the pilots and flight crews of Marine Medium Squadron-264 (Reinforced), a aviation combat element of the MEU, the potential side effects of the vaccine required vaccinated ACE Marines and Sailors to stand-down from flying their aircraft for 24 hours, thus this too required intense coordination.   

Those who were among the first group vaccinated seemed to be hit harder by mild viral symptoms, Boswell said.  The fact that such symptoms are common when people are subjected to a change in climate, such as coming aboard ship, compounded the situation.  The medical staff administered more than 1,000 Tylenol tablets during the first three weeks of this deployment, he said.

Boswell and the rest of the medical staff are relieved to have the vaccinations behind them, the 10-year Navy veteran said.  18-hour workdays leading up to and during the vaccinations were common as the medical staff tackled the biggest challenge of the evolution, proper documentation.  Meticulous entries were made in each service member?s medical record book and the automated medical record system.  The medical staff also had to prepare weekly reports for the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet detailing every aspect of the progress of the vaccination program.

The biggest sense of satisfaction for the MEU "Docs," Boswell said, is the knowledge that the troops here are now protected.  Be it Smallpox or any other medical condition, medical readiness is always of primary concern.  "In other countries, people die every day from many of the diseases we vaccinate against," he said.

To follow 'Doc' Boswell and the rest of the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU (SOC) during its current deployment, log onto http://www.26meu.usmc.mil.