Not really. Though some 50 members of the USS Dubuque’s company are suffering flu-like symptoms (one sailor is confirmed H1N1 positive, with more test results pending), the sick are staying home, and are not aboard ship.

Don’t panic. Outbreaks like this are common enough, and Navy ships, in their role as, essentially, highly populated metal cans, can become superb disease incubators. So let’s not get too excited. A shipborne outbreak was due, and given that the Navy Influenza Surveillance System caught this outbreak early is reason enough to give somebody a pat on the back.

That said, the Dubuque is not going to deploy, as was planned, on June 1. The mission is forfeit. Should this outbreak scuttle the Pacific Partnership 2009? I don’t know. I hate seeing the U.S. Navy skip a visit to Kiribati, the Marshalls, Samoa, the Solomons and Tonga. They’re important islands, and we’re facing a simmering and long-term diplomatic challenge in some of them. But we’re also tied into a resource-constrained environment, and perhaps we simply don’t have the money to fund a Pacific jaunt by an older amphib. It’s a face-saving way to cut expenses. But, fate of this mission aside, if the U.S. intends to continue direct engagement with potential maritime partners, then we must be prepared to confront any and all diseases that might be shipped aboard.

Amphibs are not alone. Even our big “Blue-Water” warships are vulnerable. A disease can be tracked aboard by anybody–an ally, a detainee, a contractor, a visitor–anyone. And if a ship can’t function, or a disease compromises a mission, then that fact is good for high-level planners to know. We need to constantly re-evaluate and study the shipboard microbial environment.

If disease aboard naval vessels poses a significant threat, then we need to do a better job understanding how disease might be introduced–and, in that regard, do a better job of detecting, stopping and, ultimately, preventing virulent pathogenic stowaways. Projects like Pacific Partnership–where we engage the shore directly–can, if we have the appropriate resources available, help teach us how to manage this threat a bit better.

But the prospect for solving the underlying issue–disease getting aboard ship–is pretty slim. Shipborne disease is a ferociously difficult problem. A primary barrier is that disease aboard ship is, simply, a fact of life. All ships get sick at some point. Several pathogens are regular post-shore leave stowaways, and virtually everybody has a story to tell about a shipboard outbreak of some kind. You just grin, bear it and try not to barf on the electronics. Disease studies afloat are just not done enough.

That’s gotta change.

Two other trends are ratcheting up the potential impact of a contagious disease aboard ship. First, manning. With smaller crews, even the temporary degradation of a crew-member (or a portion of the crew) poses a still far too poorly understood risk. How well will the LCS function if, as is happening on the Dubuque, 10%-15% of the crew goes down for the count? How about the DDG-1000?

Second, given the rapidly changing pace of modern warfare, the potential tactical-level impact of disease aboard ship is too often overlooked. If an adversary needs just a few days to do something provocative, getting the local big-deck ship sick might be a pretty neat way to do it. Introduction of something like an aggressive, drug resistant strain of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB) could even have a strategic impact. Drug-resistant TB infection might, over the long-term, disable a ship’s crew and vessel. (Just ask the USS Ronald Reagan how fun their TB outbreak was back in 2006.)

A flu is finished in a few days. But longer-term diseases like TB are tough to beat. Take treatment. The air surgeons may disagree, but, even if a pilot can get the clearance, it’s no fun to fly while taking a months-long course of really tough-on-the-body anti-TB antibiotics. (Anti-viral Tamiflu can be no fun, either.) In short, people are not at their best while sick (or, for that matter, while taking medication to prevent illness).

Everybody knows that putting sick crew in exacting, high-demand situations is not a recipe for battlefield dominance. But we need to do a better job of understanding how disease impacts high-end cognitive performance during–in particular–the hard-to-detect prodrome (that period where infected folks suffer non-specific symptoms at the start of their infection). We also might do well exploring diseases that have potential to target the brain or impact mental states.

But that’s all “next-war-itis.” Today, we’re facing off against Swine Flu, and for the lack of any better answers, this guidance from the Navy Surgeon General (ripped from a Navy Times article) offers some pretty robust, common-sense information:

A Navy-wide message released Friday by the Navy’s surgeon general offered ship-specific guidance to reduce the risks of disease spread. The guidance told commands to: remove every other seat in the mess decks; make sure sailors sleep with a “head-to-toe orientation” in berthing areas; reduce crowding in work areas; “maximize ventilation” aboard ship; and “consider restricting non-essential travel to areas with known outbreaks.”

Sound advice. But then again, haven’t the INSURV inspections this year hinted at a fleet-wide lack of attention to ventilation maintenance and design? I suspect so, but the details are classified and probably not getting over to the Navy’s medical folks. But, hey, that’s all fodder for another post.

PS–if you’re worried about the flu, and are looking for more information, go visit the DOD Pandemic Influenza Watchboard to learn more. Good luck and stay healthy out there!


Posted by Defense Springboard in Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Grampa Bluewater

    If the “Medical Folks” want to know what the deal is on ventilation maintenence and design, get the Insurv Inspections from 15 years ago, or from the Bulkeley era.

    Hit don’t change much.

    Betcha the Industrial Hygenists already know.

  • Pharm Student

    I was dismayed this morning to find out that this mission planned for June 1 has been cancelled. I was supposed to be a part of the huminatarian mission and was looking forward to a once-in-a-lifetime experience now “scuttled” by a viral outbreak. I am still hoping they are able to disenfect the ship and reassess the situtation and realize the swine flu isn’t all that the media has made it out to be.

    I have no military background myself and am not aware of the planning it takes for such a mission, but I am still hoping this mission can be redirected. I can only imagine what a mess it has been for the other NGOs who’s plans are now also disrupted.

  • It does seem a tad excessive. Maybe we’ll see a move away from “cancellation” towards “postponed” but…given how tight the finances are, anything could happen.

  • Pharm Student

    For any who have a vested interest, here is a link to the Navy’s website saying that they will continue on with the mission sans Dubuque

  • Quick! Where are the HSV’s?!

  • Mike M.

    The point about a hostile BW attack is valid, but there is a more subtle option…nonlethal agents.

    Anthrax and other nominally lethal agents are considered WMD. And United States policy has traditionally been to consider all WMD equivalent to each other. You use germs, we use nukes.

    But you can do considerable damage to fighting effectiveness with nonlethal biological agents. Give an aviator a good head cold, and he’s grounded. Hit a Marine with intestinal flu, and he’s not going to be nearly as effective. But you haven’t killed anyone – thereby avoiding unpleasant deliveries of bottled sunshine.

    It’s a possibility to consider.

  • Miguel O’Neal

    The Dubuque is cursed! A Sailor committed suicide in 2001 while standing watch and now this.

    • kris boyette

      Yes I was there a ABF hung himself in shaft alley. I believe it was a weekend while import. Kris boyette

  • Andrew

    I was stationed on the Dubuque from ’93 to ’95 while she was homeported out of Sasebo, Japan. The Dubuque is not cursed! Don’t be silly. It’s an older, but definitely seaworthy ship. She’s been through a lot (multiple tours in Vietnam, multiple tours in the Persian Gulf, etc). There are far more successes for this ship than tragedies or failures, and all ships have them. In fact, the USS San Bernadino was in our ready group, and while I personally new many great guys from that ship, the navy had to relieve three captains, three XO’s, and two sets of junior officers, simply because they couldn’t get the ship in order! In the end, they decommissioned her and sold her hull to Italy I believe. So trust me, the Dubuque is far from cursed!