Since April 1st the US Navy has reported 505 cases of H1N1 (Swine Flu) in active duty servicemen/women [pdf]. For perspective, the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard has had 502, 323, 239, and 8 cases respectively. However, more than 20% (110) of the Navy’s cases occurred on the USS Bonhomme Richard, currently at sea. Even more startling, 61 of the Bonhomme Richard’s cases happened within the last eleven days. Simply put, 12% of the Navy’s total H1N1 cases are on a single ship, on deployment, and within the last two weeks.
The Navy has so far been able to keep the USS Bonhomme Richard’s outbreak out of the news. The only mention of the outbreak is in the DoD’s July 14, 2009 Global Surveillance Summary for H1N1 [pdf] (pictured), read only by military health staff and nosy Ph.D. candidates.
While H1N1 is no more dangerous than the common flu, outbreaks of the virus have affected Naval operations in the past. After the USS Dubuque experienced at outbreak of around 20 cases of H1N1, it was scrapped as the assigned vessel for Pacific Partnership 2009, a humanitarian civic assistance mission to Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga. Mission planners scrambled and accepted an offer by the Sealift Command and the Seventh Fleet to use the USNS Richard E. Byrd. The change in vessels forced the mission to be reduced to half of the original plan. On the vessel switch, Commodore Andrew Cully said:
“Originally, we were going to have roughly 180 medical folks and several engineers, a lot more than what we’ve had. And then now we had to down-scope somewhat, and [on the USNS Richard E. Byrd] I’m carrying, roughly, 50 medical professionals, 40 engineers, and then we’ll round it out with another 20 between my core staff and partner nations and NGOs.”
Furthermore, active outbreaks can spread quickly. This week, an H1N1 outbreak amongst freshman cadets at the Air Force Academy spread to sixty-seven students within ten days of the case. The increased risk of spreading the disease in the cramped conditions of naval vessels is obvious. So, if in the next few weeks you hear reports of the USS Bonhomme Richard changing its mission due to a H1N1 outbreak: 1) do not be surprised, and 2) remember you heard it on the USNI blog first.