From a news story covering the USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) humanitarian deployment to Haiti back in 2007.

Due to greater presence of tuberculosis (TB), Comfort’s radiology department is greatly reducing the crew’s risk of exposure to the disease by conducting chest X-rays on everyone who embarks the ship.

TB is a contagious disease that affects the lungs and is spread through the air. Comfort’s previous screening process screened only the patients who embarked the ship. In Haiti and the previously visited country of Colombia, the radiology department had to develop a more efficient screening policy.

“We’re getting patients and their escorts – now we screen everyone,” said Cmdr. Kevin McCarthy, a radiologist attached to Comfort. “The policy was changed because Colombia and Haiti were known to be our biggest TB stops.”

Cmdr. McCarthy wasn’t telling the entire story regarding the policy with his last comment in that news story. You see, USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) had previously had a serious TB outbreak on the ship during a deployment by the hospital ship to support Haitian refugees. TB spread through the ship because that is the nature of air on big ships, and had it not been a hospital ship the TB outbreak would have been more difficult for the Navy to realize what was happening.

Lets consider this in the context of this health update from Doctors Without Borders:

In addition to famines, droughts, floods, and unrelenting conflict, the absence of public health services has resulted in enormous unmet basic health needs for a large majority of the estimated population of over 11.5 million. Women and children under five are particularly vulnerable. In Somalia, 1,000 out of every 100,000 women die giving birth; and more than one in five children dies before their fifth birthday.

What little medical services exist are privately owned and costly – out of reach for most Somalis. Many suffer from easily treatable diseases that can be fatal without access to healthcare, such as diarrhea and respiratory tract infections. Somalia also has one of the world’s highest prevalence rates of tuberculosis (TB). The neglected tropical disease kala azar claims the lives of thousands and there are regular outbreaks of measles, cholera and other epidemics.

Hopefully none of the pirates captured have TB, because based on what I have seen regarding the makeshift prison setup on USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE 1), it seems to me it would be a pretty terrible thing if that ships crew came down with TB considering that is also the ship interfacing with every other ship in the region.

I don’t know if we are keeping the pirates in a section of the ship where the ventilation system is connected to the rest of the ship, but I hope it is something that has been considered. I also do not know if there is an x-ray or radiologist on the ship, but perhaps there should be? I’m not trying to over hype an issue, nor do I know if this is even an issue. I’m simply noting that Naval forces don’t generally take and hold prisoners in large numbers for long periods of time at sea.

Posted by galrahn in Foreign Policy, Navy, Piracy

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  • Highlighting something I’ve been writing about for the last decade. Good. But that’s not just a problem for T-AKEs. It’s a worry even for the CVNs. Remember Ronald Reagan’s outbreak?

    That said, there are ways to do this sort of thing without endangering the rest of the crew.

  • leesea

    Interesting that this news is just getting out now? At least to the public that is!

    For the current operation, my solution would be to just put the pirates on the L&C into berthing modules on deck sort of combination jail cells and isolation wards.

    BTW cargo holds generally are not connected to the ventilation system of the accomodations spaces. Some cargo spaces have special HVAC system controls. The Navy has not said which cargo space is being used (for good reason).

  • Dee Illuminati

    If you read the Global Trends reports you realize that what is happening in Haiti which is the poster child for a failed nation state can have impacts outside that border.

    (note: see the earlier reports) and read them as a series.

    This is why soft power has a role, maybe immunization is a good idea?

  • Dee Illuminati

    I see you did an edit and added Somalia.. Somalia is a poster child for a failed nation state not in our hemisphere.

  • I gotta get back to those sub reports Chap put up, but I just wanted to shout out that (in most cases) TB is tough to catch. You need sustained, long-term, close-quarters contact to get it.

    And a TAKE is pretty big. (The real ugly risk would be multi-drug-resistant TB, but that’s…a future problem)

    So, in that regard, a more crowded, front-line warship may not be the best place to put ’em. Even though the TAKE is interfacing with other vessels, the chance of inter-ship transmission is pretty low. A more transmissible disease…all bets would be off.

    Also. There are ways to prevent intra and inter-ship transmission. But, that said, regular HVAC maintenance does not an admiral make.

    The fun things to watch are….the other, more front-liney coalition ships that have prisoners aboard. (Cough cough cough) But then again, those coalition partners may already have a high enough prevalence of indigenous TB to…oh, you know. nuff said.