The army microbiologist helps fight mosquito-borne diseases from the Down Under-Pacific laboratory

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BRISBANE, Australia – An American laboratory run by an army on an Australian military base is helping to protect troops from mosquito-borne diseases in tropical environments such as the training areas used in this month's Talisman Saber exercise .

The laboratory was established by Captain Jennifer Kooken, 34, of Derry, N.H., a microbiologist with the Walter Reed Army Research Institute. Last year he worked at the Institute of Malaria and Infectious Diseases of the Australian Defense Force in the Gallipoli barracks in Brisbane.

The institute is responsible for preventing the spread, damage caused by insect diseases, understanding and treating such diseases, he said.

US officials have been working in the institute since 1984, but the lab is Kooken's pet project.

Equipped with $ 500,000 of new sample trays, pipettes, beakers, a gene sequencer and a workbench with a protective glass screen to prevent sample contamination, the lab is an important tool to protect troops in places they may have one single health threat, Kooken said during a tour of the facility Saturday.

"We are trying to set up a surveillance station for the Indo-Pacific region," he said. "The Australian Defense Force sends troops to the South Pacific islands. We want to find out what diseases they encounter there."

Kooken, one of the 91 army microbiologists worldwide, can test blood samples from troops deployed to control 30 endemic insect-borne diseases in the Indo-Pacific.

Things he can test include Lyme disease, typhus typhus, the Yellow River virus, Japanese encephalitis, the Ross river virus and malaria.

"When our soldiers encounter one of these diseases, there can be an immediate impact on strength readiness and the ability to complete the mission," he said. "We need to know and understand what potential health threats will be encountered during training exercises and deployments around the world."

There are important differences between operating environments in the Indo-Pacific. For example, there is no Lyme disease in Australia, but it is the Ross River virus, Kooken said.

American troops have contracted the virus in the Shoalwater Bay training area, one of the main sites for Talisman Saber, he said. The one-month biennial exercise, which includes 34,000 soldiers from the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, lasts until the beginning of August.

Shoalwater Bay is also the home of dengue. The disease often seems to be a flu case at first, but it can cause bleeding and worsen the symptoms several times, it is said, he said.

The captain of the Australian army Lisa Rigby, 31, from Brisbane, an entomologist, works alongside Kooken. His laboratory is full of thousands of blood-sucking critters hiding from larvae in dozens of plastic water trays.

Rigby's lab came in and out of a couple of doors designed to stop mosquitoes from walking outside. Rigby nourishes insects, kept under nets and segregated by species, with blood from mice and other animals through artificial membrane containers.

Rigby said he also fed her own blood, claiming he had hundreds of mosquito bites on his stomach.

Some of the mosquitoes in the laboratory are exotic species that are usually not found in Australia. Others are deliberately infected with deadly diseases, so they can be studied, Kooken said.

The forest that surrounds the institute has mosquito traps designed to alert the authorities if a mosquito should escape, even if that didn't happen, he said.

The tests at the facility will provide information on diseases in any country or region of the Indo-Pacific, he said.

For example, if a host nation's troops were positive for a mosquito-borne disease, it would be a warning that they could pass it on to US forces operating alongside them, Kooken said.

The information will help leaders determine which vaccines the troops receive before going to specific places and which post-distribution health care they receive, he said.

Kooken reports to the Institute of Medical Sciences of the Armed Forces of Bangkok, Thailand, one of the three research centers on the overseas army controlled by Walter Reed along with facilities in Kenya and the nation of Georgia.

A year on a three-year tour in Brisbane, Kooken, along with his Australian colleagues, is preparing to analyze the blood taken from Papua New Guinea troops and Australian servicemen who recently lined up on the tropical island. he said.

When scientists find a pathogen in a soldier's blood, they return the information to doctors who determine which therapy is needed, he said.

Australian staff at the institute visited the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Samoa to study insects and pathogens that carry and transmit to people, as well as showing locals how to protect themselves from disease, he said.

The institute is testing military uniforms to see if they protect people. The tests showed that some uniforms treated with fireproof do not absorb the repellent and that some repellents in the uniforms come out in the wash, he said.

"If you're spending money on these things you need, you know they're working," he said.

The best protection is to take various measures like wearing long sleeves, using repellent and sleeping with a mosquito net, Kooken said.

The institute is also involved in a local trial of a new malaria drug, tafenoquina, which was authorized in the United States and Australia, but has not yet been used by the army. A weekly dose will protect people, but Brisbane scientists are testing to see if it will only work with a monthly dose, Kooken said.

"People are really bad at taking medicine especially in work situations," he said.

When not working in his laboratory, Kooken helps in a larger Australian laboratory nearby, using a mass spectrometer to look for a protein that could be used to test new malaria strains that have changed so much that they don't show up with conventional tests he said quickly.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @ SethRobson1

The captain of the Australian army Lisa Rigby shows a laboratory in which mosquitoes are hatched and fed at the Australian Institute for Diseases and Infectious Diseases of Defense in Brisbane, Australia, on July 20, 2019.
SETH ROBSON / STARS AND STRIPES

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