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Working Behind the Scenes, Army Entomologists Find Duties Rewarding

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>By Keith B. Richburg

>The Washington Post

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> Walk into the office of Army Capt. Steve Horosko here and the first thing you might notice are the three dead, stiff-legged rats sealed in plastic Zip-lock bags on the windowsill. Or perhaps the jars of centipedes and millipedes stored in liquid on a nearby shelf.

Horosko is an Army entomologist -- an insect specialist -- with the 485th Medical Detachment. The creepy collection in his office is just part of his job. He doesn't see much action or get many headlines, unlike the U.S. Marines battling Somali gunmen in this capital's mean streets. His work is confined to a cramped office or laboratory, and he is often the butt of jokes from colleagues.

But Horosko takes his work just as seriously. "We're not just guys who run around with great big Orkin cans spraying,'' he said.

While the Marines contend with continuous sniper fire and the logistical problems of delivering food across an inhospitable countryside, Horosko and his fellow entomologists here are battling Somalia's untold number of indigenous multi-legged, furry and winged inhabitants, which are constantly flying, crawling, slithering and scampering in the supposedly "secure'' areas where the U.S. troops live, eat and sleep. These creatures can carry a number of serious diseases -- some of them fatal if not treated -- ranging from the more common malaria and dengue fever to more exotic ailments with names like Congo Crimean Hemorrhagic Fever, Sand Fly Fever, Kala Azar and Baghdad Sore.

"I think it's critically important for the troops, especially in an environment like this,'' Horosko said. "You're faced with a wide variety of threats -- and I'm not talking about the two-legged threats.''

The Army recently reorganized its medical units, taking three large entomology detachments of 40 specialists each and creating smaller, more mobile units that can move quickly into the field alongside combat troops -- sort of a Rapid Deployment Force of bug-busters. In addition to its entomology work, the 485th Detachment provides preventive medicine, tends to field sanitation needs and inspects latrines.

The greatest indigenous insect threat to U.S. forces in Somalia, Horosko said, is the mosquito "because it can kill you here.''

Army Col. Edwin Schoonover, commander of the 86th Evacuation Hospital -- the mobile, 104-bed field facility set up at the Mogadishu airport -- said his doctors have seen 30 confirmed malaria cases among the troops since the hospital opened Jan. 8. Because of the hospital's sophisticated laboratory, Schoonover said, doctors usually can diagnose a malaria case within just a few hours of testing the patient, and the affected soldiers generally have returned to duty within two days.

Other pesky creatures here are not quite as dangerous as mosquitoes, presenting more of a nuisance than a threat.

Somalia's ubiquitous centipedes, while unsightly typically are "not out looking for people,'' Horosko said. Usually, he said, the soldiers find the creatures inside their boots in the morning, leading to an irritating bite similar to a common bee sting.

The Somalia fly belongs to the same family as the common American housefly. But the local variation has a high potential for transferring disease to humans because of its tendency to hover around the human mouth and face, near the mucous membranes.

Rats tend to congregate in areas where food is stored and where humans sleep, in search of scraps. Horosko said the rats, in concert with the flies, carry a disease risk: They have "very poor bladder control'' and tend to urinate and defecate as they crawl along, leaving bacteria-infested waste for the flies to settle on before they move on to hover around human mouths.

A more dangerous pest is the snake, of which Somalia is believed to have at least eight poisonous varieties. Several American soldiers have reported snake sightings, but so far there has been only one known mishap. A GI was brought to the hospital after a spitting cobra shot its venom into the soldier's eyes. The venom can permanently damage the eye's cornea, but alert U.S. medics taped down the victim's eyelids and started continuous irrigation, saving the soldier's sight.

Somalia also is home to potentially dangerous scorpions, as well as sea urchins and even Indian Ocean sharks that take an occasional swim at the nearby beach, which is off-limits for most of the troops.

Horosko, a resident of De Ridder, La., who is based at nearby Fort Polk, said he enjoys doing a job that might make burly Marines squirm. But he said the difficult conditions in Somalia make this "more of a challenge'' than previous assignments.