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At Sea and on Shore with the USNS Comfort

By CAPT Craig Shepherd, CDR Christopher Brady, and LCDR Diane Kelsch


HHS and other U.S. government personnel on their way from the USNS Comfort to an on-shore deployment in Belize.


June 30, 2007 – The Caribbean Sea and countries along its shores are famous for their aqua blue waters and ancient cultures. In these tropical lands, however, are communities with high rates of gastrointestinal diseases, malaria, dengue, and poverty, and with limited access to health care. In partnership with 12 host countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) is underway on a four-month humanitarian deployment to those afflicted areas. Shipmates to the 800 U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, Canadian Forces, and non-governmental personnel are 18 health professionals from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) U.S. Public Health Service, which includes dental (dentists and dental hygienists), medical, nursing, and veterinary officers, as well as environmental health officers CAPT Craig Shepherd (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), LCDR Diane Kelsch (Food and Drug Administration), and Engineer Officer CDR Christopher Brady (Indian Health Service).


CAPT Shepherd (Officer-in-Charge of the HHS Teams), CDR Brady, and LCDR Kelsch are assigned to an 11-member preventive medicine team that provides training on food safety, personal hygiene, household water storage and treatment, and sanitation. The team also conducts assessments of vector habitats, food safety, and water supply and sanitation facilities. In addition, team members provide technical oversight to Navy Seabee crews that are constructing improvement projects for clinics and schools.


In Belize, the HHS officers traveled to the Valley of Peace, a community of 2,000 people originally established by the United Nations for refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador. While there, the preventive medicine team provided training at the local school, conducted evaluations of the community water supply, and provided recommendations on disinfection and treatment.


After five days in Belize, the Comfort anchored off the shores of Guatemala, where the HHS officers provided assistance in the town of Livingston. At this site, the HHS environmental health and engineering officers conducted training for 350 people at the clinic through a local interpreter, who translated the material in both Spanish and Quek’chi, the local indigenous language spoken by approximately 60 percent of the population. Additionally, they met with smaller groups of people to provide follow-up training on food safety and promote household water disinfection with free sample packets of the locally available bleach, “Magia Blanca."


At the end of the day, the hour ride back to the Comfort with spraying salty water as the boat breaks through the waves offers a welcome relief from the 105-degree heat index on land. The time on the sea also provides time to reflect on this mission of good will that brings drops of relief to individual lives. The next stop for HHS Team 1 will be Panamá, where other HHS officers will replace them to carry on the mission for our neighbors to the south with the friendly smiles and grateful communities.  

Last revised: July 16, 2007