By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 30, 2011 – The Defense Department’s overseas medical research laboratories will play a key role in ensuring the readiness of deployed U.S. military forces well into the future, while also contributing to global health and U.S. partnership-building around the world, the Pentagon’s senior health affairs advisor said.
Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, called the overseas Army and Navy labs that have helped protect deployed service members for the past 60 years -- and civilians around the world as well -- “a national investment and a national treasure.”
Woodson addressed a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum June 28 as its Global Health Policy Center released a new report, “The Defense Department’s Enduring Contributions to Global Health -- The Future of the U.S. Army and Navy Overseas Medical Research Laboratories.”
These labs include the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Nairobi, Kenya; the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangkok; the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit 3 in Cairo; NAMRU-6 in Lima, Peru; and NAMRU-2 Pacific, temporarily headquartered at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
A sixth laboratory, U.S. Army Medical Research Unit Europe, in Heidelberg, Germany, conducts psycho-social research; and the precursor to a new U.S. Army laboratory, the Central Public Health Reference Library, opened in March in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Woodson echoed the CSIS report’s finding that the laboratories, while “exceptional” in their contribution to military readiness as well as scientific research and global health, are “surprisingly under-recognized and undervalued” outside the research community.
“For relatively little dollars, we get a huge benefit, not only in terms of protecting the citizenry of this nation,” he said. “But the added value to the world is just incredible.”
The CSIS report noted some of the labs’ contributions: the first vaccine for Japanese encephalitis virus; the first isolation of the Rift Valley Fever virus; the first identification of new strains of dengue fever in Peru; the demonstrated efficacy of several drugs to treat and prevent malaria; and in Thailand, the first successful HIV/AIDS vaccine trial, among them.
Woodson cited the research laboratories’ long history of addressing disease that rendered troops ineffective, with decades of work that helped develop a robust inventory of vaccines and therapeutics.
These and other efforts have helped elevate the state of military medicine to its highest levels ever, particularly during the last decade. “We have the lowest rate of disease and nonbattle injury ever witnessed in the history of warfare,” Woodson said. “That success started in our research laboratories.”
The laboratories’ achievements have extended far beyond the military, helping to reduce human suffering and promoting stability around the world, Woodson said.
“Building healthy populations is a worthy strategic engagement approach,” he said. “In fact, utilizing medicine and building healthy populations is a way of preserving the peace so we don’t have to get into these kinetic wars” and can focus on building stable societies.
Woodson emphasized the importance of partnerships in advances made to date and called for closer collaboration in the future: between government agencies, government, academia and the private sector, and the world health community.
He paid tribute to the professionals who work largely behind the scenes to advance the labs’ work.
“Make no mistake: their contributions and expertise are really valued, and they know that their work matters,” Woodson said. “But their work is done without fanfare and with real modesty and with a deep respect for the science and data and discipline of their art and their practice.”
Woodson emphasized the importance of strategic communication that helps build broader understanding and appreciation for the laboratories’ contributions to global health. This will be particularly important during times of budget constraints, when cost-sharing will become increasingly important, he said.
The laboratories have roots dating back to the 19th century, the CSIS report noted. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which oversees the Army’s international network of laboratories, traces its institutional heritage to the Army Medical School, founded in 1893 by U.S. Army Surgeon General Brig. Gen. George Miller Sternberg.
Sternberg established the Army’s first two overseas laboratories in Cuba and the Philippines to investigate outbreaks of typhoid fever and yellow fever that were undermining U.S. military efforts during the Spanish-American War.
The Navy established its first domestic naval medical laboratory in 1953 on the grounds of the Brooklyn Naval Hospital in 1983.