The U.S. military has dispatched the Navy hospital ship Mercy to the tsunami region in Southeast Asia, and is prepared to also send modular hospitals by air that could arrive within hours. Military officials say they are ready to move fast, but are waiting for local governments and international relief organizations to decide whether and where the facilities are needed.
One of the Navy's two hospital ships left San Diego, California Wednesday for the waters off the tsunami-devastated shores of Southeast Asia. The ship is a converted oil tanker, and is 272 meters long. It can accommodate as many as 1,000 patients in hospital beds, and has 12 fully-equipped operating rooms. Normally, the Mercy, and its sister ship based in the Atlantic called the Comfort, deal with combat injuries.
Officials say this deployment will be different.
"We're going to deploy her in an imaginative way," says Admiral Tom Fargo, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific. "These hospital ships are normally used for trauma in combat. But we think there may be an opportunity to configure the Mercy with a humanitarian assistance crew that might be staffed considerably by non-governmental organizations, and people that have significant medical capability and can provide relief in other forms."
For now, the Mercy is at sea with a basic crew. But additional staff members will join it by air once it gets closer to the tsunami area, and Admiral Fargo says that staff will likely include doctors, counselors and others with special skills for dealing with a civilian disaster of this scale. He says the hospital ship is capable of providing care, or supporting medical teams on land, in a wide variety of specialties, including infectious diseases, pediatrics, dentistry, gynecology and even mental health.
But the Mercy will take a long time to cross the Pacific to the waters off Indonesia and Sri Lanka, about 30 days, the Navy says. In the meantime, ships already in the area are providing some medical facilities for tsunami victims. More than 100 people have already been treated on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which arrived in the area with its support ships this week.
In addition, U.S. military medical teams are working with local health care workers and other foreign teams treating thousands of people every day. And the U.S. Air Force is standing by with mobile hospitals that could be delivered to the tsunami area within a few hours, once officials decide whether and where they want them.
"The value of the Air Force is two C-17s arrive and land with a hospital and ambulances," says the top medical officer of the U.S. Air Force, General George Taylor Jr.. He says the air force specializes in providing small hospitals, some with just a few beds, that can be delivered by air in a matter of hours. The force's largest field hospitals, with a 25-bed capacity, are carried on two C-17 transport planes and come complete with ambulances. He says one such unit is on the tarmac at an air force base in Japan, ready to go. "We actually have one of those 25-bed hospitals at Yokota now that could deploy as is called for. We need to know where to go. We need to be able to get into whatever location we're going. And we need to be able to hand it off to a competent authority."
General Taylor says the U.S. Air Force can provide the medical staff for the hospitals, or it is willing to lend the facilities to local governments in the tsunami region.
The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Dr. William Winkenwerder, said this week that the United States is prepared to add as many as eight such facilities, of various sizes, to the relief effort. U.S. military officials say they are consulting with local governments and international relief organizations about the possible use of the air force hospitals.
Although no decision has yet been made on the use of the air force hospitals, and the Navy's hospital ship is a month away from the region, Dr. Winkenwerder says the need for such facilities will continue for a long time. He says the destruction of many water and sewerage systems in the area, and the fact that many people are living in close proximity in crowded camps, will create a long term need. "All this creates a breeding ground for disease and for epidemics. Certainly top among those are water-borne diarrheal illnesses, things like e-coli, also cholera, a very serious disease, (and) Hepatitis-A. And then of course there are respiratory diseases. Certainly measles is another possibility. And then also in the coming weeks we will have to be looking out for things like dengue and malaria," he says.
The Pentagon says it already has $20 billion worth of equipment in the tsunami region, including 17 ships and more than 80 aircraft. Helicopters from the United States and other countries have proven to be one of the most important assets of the relief effort, enabling skilled crews to reach people in remote areas with food, water and medical supplies, and to take them to hospitals when necessary. Thirteen hundred military personnel are on the ground and 12,000 on ships. Officials say it costs about $6 million a day to operate the force, in addition to the $350 million in civilian aid pledged by the U.S. government.