U.S. troops in Somalia will have many enemies: heat, bad water, insects, disease OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 09, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

The U.S. Marines landing in Mogadishu may have more to fear from wilting heat, bad water and insect-borne illnesses than from Somalia's trigger-happy gunslingers, say military medical experts.

The environmental and health hazards confronting U.S. troops being sent into Somalia may be even worse than those faced by forces during the Persian Gulf war, said Lt. Col. Peter V. Perkins, a medical entomologist for the Army.

Somalia is home to 58 varieties of viruses that are carried by mosquitoes and flies, noted Colonel Perkins, who recently helped prepare an assessment for the Defense Department of the health threats in that arid stretch of the Horn of Africa.

Diarrheal diseases, spread by Somalia's poor sanitation and hordes of flies, are likely to be the Marines' worst foes, he said during an interview while attending a meeting in Baltimore of the Entomological Society of America.

Filth flies are going to be a problem," he said, citing the already familiar photos and television footage of starving Somalis whose faces are covered by the winged pests.

Other major disease threats may be malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, sand fly fever and leishmaniasis.

The last two maladies are spread by sand flies, tiny black flies that come out at night, Colonel Perkins said.

Like malaria, sand fly fever can ravage a fighting force in a matter of days, laying up troops with flu-like symptoms.

Leishmaniasis, though not immediately debilitating, can cause skin lesions and ulcers, and it can be transmitted by blood transfusions.

The discovery of 28 cases among gulf war troops prompted the United States to close its blood banks to gulf veterans.

Although U.S. medical experts have had little or no experience with Somalia, Colonel Perkins said, "we know that very healthy people can become very unhealthy in a very short period of time."

The civil chaos in Somalia and lack of clean food or drinking water there pose challenges U.S. forces did not face in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia had good sanitation.

In Somalia, Colonel Perkins said, "there really isn't any good water. They're going to have to dig wells."

Potentially catastrophic epidemics can be prevented, he said, as they were during the gulf war.

Soldiers' uniforms are treated with insect repellents, the troops have been vaccinated against typhoid and other diseases, and they will be taking pills to ward off malaria.

Besides those measures, U.S. forces in Somalia will be able to engage in chemical warfare against their insect foes, a weapon not available during the gulf war, Colonel Perkins said.

Spraying pesticides was forbidden in Saudi Arabia during DeserStorm because that might have triggered sensors set up to warn U.S. troops against an Iraqi poison gas attack.

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