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Wednesday, October 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:04 A.M.

Battle against boot-camp virus gets fast track

By Michael J. Berens
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Archive: Boot-camp virus runs rampant
The Defense Department is speeding up development of a vaccine to thwart a virus striking 1 in 10 recruits, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said yesterday.

Winkenwerder, responding to a Seattle Times story on Sunday detailing how a vaccine had been abandoned in 1996 because it was considered too expensive, said he will push to distribute a new oral vaccine by 2006, up to three years earlier than expected.

He called it his "top priority."

The faster-than-normal timetable is pending successful clinical trials and approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Boot-camp infection rates have soared to epidemic levels with up to 2,500 recruits a month flooding medical clinics. At least four deaths in the past year are associated with a flulike germ called adenovirus, analysis of military records by The Seattle Times shows.

Hundreds of recruits a year miss training because of the virus and are sent back through boot camp — costing millions of dollars and hindering efforts to quickly deploy troops overseas.

The Pentagon created two pills in 1971 to eradicate the virus but the vaccine was abandoned in 1996 as too expensive. Military foot-dragging and disorganization have delayed efforts to create a new oral vaccine as infection rates have climbed each of the past six years, according to Naval Health Research Center records.

About the virus

Adenovirus is a common virus that attacks the respiratory system, causing labored breathing, sore throat and fever. Most people experience at least one attack by age 10 and recover in a few days. Spread by cough or touch, the germ can be fatal, particularly to children or those with weak immune systems.

The FDA can designate developing drugs as investigational to provide immediate access to critically needed medicines before the process of full licensing is completed. Barr Laboratories of Forest, Va., was awarded a $35.4 million contract in 2001 to make the vaccine.

"It's one of those issues where you look where the problem went wrong. Some say 'it was the bureaucracy.' Well, that's not satisfactory as far as I'm concerned," Winkenwerder said. "We care very much about the risk of illness, and we care very much about the health of our young service members. We are doing everything we can."

Winkenwerder and other military officials said yesterday that doctors are exploring other remedies, such as improving boot-camp hygiene, stepping up efforts to treat ill recruits who are reluctant to seek care, and using antiviral medications, such as ribavirin.

Adenovirus is a common respiratory virus that causes sore throat, fever and labored breathing. Most people contract the virus and recover on their own within four days. However, the virus is life-threatening for some.

The germ is spread by cough or touch and flourishes inside barracks where dozens of fatigued recruits, stressed to their physical limits, sleep head to toe, often in buildings with poor air circulation and a single sink for washing hands, according to records at the Army Surgeon General's Office.

Some bases are experimenting with waterless soap to clean hands, an alcohol-based lotion that instantly kills germs while drying in seconds.

More than a dozen families of service members contacted The Seattle Times this week with stories of recruits discouraged or belittled for seeking medical care. In some cases, family members said, recruits were provided superficial examinations and pushed back into the field with little more than an over-the-counter remedy.

Winkenwerder said he is unaware of any widespread problems within the eight largest basic-training centers where outbreaks have been centered. He said doctors have established the nation's most comprehensive adenovirus-virus tracking system, but efforts are limited to the military.

He said he thinks the virus also thrives outside the military, such as in college dormitories, and said a study launched this year through the University of Iowa could show the virus is the culprit behind civilian deaths attributed to other causes.

Michael J. Berens: 206-4642288 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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