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There I Was: Squaring off with the Rove Beetle, other dangerous enemies

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Misty Varner
  • 6th Aerospace Medicine Squadron
The deployment came down as a tasking to Africa; Ethiopia to be exact. My first thought was, "does the Air Force have active duty members in Ethiopia?" Then I wondered what my mission was. Soon, there came instructions to attend a Tropical Medicine course held at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Texas. The course was intimidating, but exciting and informative. I learned about diseases such as Hemorrhagic Fever and Malaria, as well as, a multitude of parasites. Also, there is the ever present fact that Ethiopia has an estimated 2.2 million people infected with the AIDS virus.

This information was very important, but I was unsure how relevant it was to my mission. I did not know if I was deploying in a humanitarian role or other capacity. Fortunately, a month prior to my departure I was able to contact the individual I would be replacing. He informed me it was not a humanitarian mission. We would be staying at a local inn, and be wearing civilian clothes about 50 percent of the time. Conditions were much better than what I expected; however, internet was very limited, mail was practically nonexistent (we received mail four times in my six month deployment), and we finally received Air Force News service two months prior to my departure.

My primary mission was to provide medical care to the military personnel deployed at our location. The medical contingency consisted of a physician, a public health technician and me, a medic. We faced multiple challenges receiving supplies, as there was no ability to receive items that required refrigeration. However, our active duty military population is relatively healthy, and our deployed members, having gone through medical screening prior to deployment, are the healthiest of the bunch.

Our team spent the majority of our time emphasizing prevention. We talked to individuals about proper hygiene and taking their anti-malarial medication. We also stressed the need to be leery of foods served in local restaurants and taught them to avoid potentially contaminated foods. Of concern, were the cooks at the base dining facility who were not contracted by the military. The public health technician and our services personnel provided training to the local cooking staff on proper hand washing and cooking techniques. The most common maladies we saw were nausea and diarrhea. Most people had to adjust to the food they were eating and be mindful of undercooked food such as eggs and chicken.

We were about a month into our deployment when we noticed a unique skin condition on several people. The patients described a burning sensation that felt like it was caused by a chemical burn, and they also complained of pain and itching. Their skin was red with pustules and blisters. This was our newest mystery.

How do we treat this skin condition and how do we determine what is causing it? Through some detective work, by interviewing some of the hotel staff and reaching back to the previous provider, we found out this skin condition was caused by a bug called the Rove Beetle. It was not a sting or a bite from this beetle that causes this reaction, but the result of a reaction to the bug's exoskeleton, when the affected individual crushed the beetle against their skin. Crushing the beetle releases a toxin which is absorbed into the skin and surrounding blood vessels, causing the inflammatory skin reaction. The beetle is very small, only 7-8mm in length and most people did not even know when they came into contact with it. Unfortunately, there is no real treatment other than topical antihistamines for symptomatic relief. Eventually, we learned if you knew you had crushed the beetle against your skin and were able to wash the affected area shortly after contact, the reaction was less severe. Due to the identification of this new hazard we added the now notorious Rove Beetle to all of our "New Comer" briefings.

I learned many things on this deployment to Ethiopia. I believe the most important message to get across is the importance of prevention. Military members are constantly reminded to keep immunizations, preventative health assessments and fitness up-to-date. It becomes a reality in a situation where immunizations are not available and definitive medical care could be 12 to 24 hours away.