Fort Detrick unit to track diseases that affect U.S.

July 03, 2008|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun reporter

FREDERICK - A military unit that has tracked diseases threatening U.S. forces overseas for more than a half-century will now assess infections that could endanger civilians at home, too, officials announced yesterday at a dedication ceremony.

Renamed the National Center for Medical Intelligence, the agency will gather information on diseases and contaminants that could make their way into the United States through food, animals, travelers, immigrants and returning troops.

It will work in close partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which also looks for infectious agents entering the country at border crossings, officials said.

"These medical threats we see globally affect not only our armed forces, but other elements of the federal government ... and are threats to our homeland, to our civilian population and to the security of the United States of America," Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said before a gathering of about 100 employees and officials.

The unit, which employs about 150 people, is in a low-slung building at Fort Detrick, the military base where scientists at another unit have studied pathogens such as anthrax, Ebola and other hemorrhagic diseases.

In December, the medical intelligence center expects to begin construction of a 15,000-square-foot addition to its existing home.

Until yesterday, the organization was known as the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. It traces its roots to World War II, when it was part of the Army surgeon general's office. Later, it became part of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In recent years, the center has provided information about diseases that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan might encounter, as well as intelligence on the threat of roadside bombs containing chlorine gas, said Col. Anthony M. Rizzo, its director.

"When the tsunami occurred, we provided intelligence to all deployers across the entire government," Rizzo said. "When the Pakistani earthquake struck, we provided predictive intelligence about the risks and what forces would face."

It also assessed the possibility that the North Korean nuclear program could expose overseas personnel to radiation, he said.

Even before yesterday's name change, the center had begun to focus more broadly on epidemics that could enter the United States, endangering civilians as well as government personnel, he said.

For several years, it has written "predictive reports" on avian flu, a strain of influenza spread by birds that has also killed more than 220 people, most of them in Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

Experts worry that the viral strain, called H5N1, could trigger a pandemic similar to the flu of 1918-1919 if it should undergo a genetic change that makes it easily transmissible from person to person.

"The evolution into a national center today is also a recognition of what we've been doing for some considerable period of time," Rizzo said.

Also speaking at yesterday's festivities were Charles E. Allen, Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, and James. R. Clapper Jr., undersecretary of defense.

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