Army investigates pneumonia cases, two deaths among troops

The Army surgeon general has deployed two teams of epidemiologists to investigate about 100 cases of pneumonia that have occurred among deployed troops since March 1. Two soldiers have died, and 13 others have been so severely affected that they have required ventilators to breathe.

The teams were dispatched to the Middle East, where most of the illnesses have developed, and to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where most of the seriously ill troops are being treated. Defense officials say there is currently no evidence to indicate the illnesses are the result of bioterrorism.

Col. Robert DeFraites, the senior preventive medicine officer in the Office of the Army Surgeon General, said the illnesses may not be an anomaly-the Army typically experiences between 400 and 500 cases of pneumonia every year, and in the last five years, 17 soldiers have died from complications of pneumonia. Because so many troops are deployed to the Middle East, it is not surprising that so many cases of the illness are originating there, he said.

In a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, DeFraites said that at this point, there is no clear pattern to the illnesses, and there is no indication that any of the cases were spread from one person to another. "We are sufficiently concerned about especially the more severe pneumonias that the epidemiological consultation was warranted," he said.

There are basically two types of pneumonia: illness that results from infectious causes, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi; and illness caused by environmental conditions, such as dust, metals or smoke, DeFraites said. So far, investigators have found that bacteria was the cause of two illnesses. The cause of pneumonia in the two deaths is still under investigation. The goal of the epidemiologists will be to determine if there are any patterns to the cases, and to assess the effectiveness of medical treatment.

"We're approaching this from a prevention and treatment focus to see if there is some way we can intervene to protect the health of the troops and then to treat them better," DeFraites said.