As the disease spread across the globe and shut down entire communities in the early days of the outbreak, COVID-19 served as a reminder of the dangers that misdiagnosed illnesses can pose to the global community.

At least on a microbiological level, many of us are unaware of infections. Nonetheless, there are countless individuals and organizations devoted to identifying, evaluating, and researching this particular issue. Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Pavlicek, Detachment Director of the US Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3 Microbiology Laboratory at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, is one of them (NAMRU-3).

“Previous infectious diseases have affected combat soldiers; COVID is merely the most recent,” observed Pavlicek. We cannot predict where the next COVID outbreak will occur, but we are prepared; we have the data and technology to identify any illness on Earth. 

Pavlicek is the only microbiologist stationed at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where he provides support for Camp Lemonnier, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), the US Embassy in Djibouti, and US military personnel stationed across East Africa.

Additionally, she assists the Djiboutian Ministry of Health. When a person is infected with a virus or other disease, the NAMRU must record the pathogen in order to accumulate data for pathogen research on military facilities. Pavlicek is able to conduct a test and provide results within one to two hours. To submit the test to other military medical research centers in Italy or Germany could take up to two weeks. According to Pavlicek, CJTF-HOA personnel travel frequently throughout East Africa for a variety of mission types and rely heavily on this type of support.

These tests provide regional treatment and surveillance capabilities, aiding the NAMRU in recognizing and protecting military members from dangerous viruses. As an extension of its higher headquarters, the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Naval Amphibious Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) provides data so that specialists can build health force protection measures to increase regional force preparation. When professionals like Pavlicek deploy and report on their research, the research and dissemination cycle is accelerated.

Pavlicek, who is employed by the NMRC, is able to report and defend specific, frequently controversial study findings. In addition to continuous testing, Pavlicek and the NAMRU are participating in approximately 23 projects.

Pavlicek noted, “I have counseled and assisted over 30 US commands and entities in the region on anything from suspected hemorrhagic fever to the simple COVID-19 test.” Among Pavlicek’s current responsibilities is testing mosquitoes for malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.

Because of her research, her team was able to respond rapidly to the unexpected discovery of chikungunya. Her team aids key CJTF-HOA colleagues, including as Civil Affairs East Africa and the CJTF-HOA surgeon cell, in conducting laboratory assessments, evaluations, quarantines, and offering general pathogen assistance to anyone in need. These tasks are essential for protecting the safety of workers both on and off the job. According to Pavlicek, a more recent example of participation in city activities was a visit to a local slaughterhouse to watch how the facility processes meat before providing it to our troops.

Since the 1940s, NAMRU-3 has been operational. Prior to its 2016 move to Italy, the Naval Medical Research Unit was based in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt, Ghana, and Djibouti continue to operate labs.

Pavlicek stated, “We’re ecstatic to lend a hand because it’s for such a worthy cause: guaranteeing that everyone can complete their jobs while providing whatever assistance we can to regional partners.” This enhances my knowledge of the stresses placed on the Department of Defense and operational personnel. Prior to my arrival, I had limited interaction with other units, especially special forces.

By gaining a deeper understanding of their needs, I will be able to contribute to the creation of cutting-edge technology that will aid them in the field. Infectious diseases have long posed a threat to humanity, and from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War and beyond, the United States military has fought against them. If non-battle injuries are not promptly addressed, preparation may be jeopardized. Fortunately, NAMRU-3 and other global research organizations identify, monitor, and evaluate disease trends to protect US military personnel and society from potential catastrophes.

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