U.S. Teams in Iraq Investigate Mystery Illness

Aug. 4, 2003 -- U.S. military officials are investigating an outbreak of a mysterious "pneumonia-like" illness that has claimed the lives of two American soldiers in Iraq.

The illness is officially being called pneumonia, and the Army has recorded about 100 cases labeled as such throughout Iraq since March 1. Of the 100 cases, 15 were serious enough to warrant the patients being hooked up to ventilators and evacuated from the region.

According to a release by the U.S. Army surgeon general, two of the 15 cases categorized as "serious" have died, 10 have recovered and three remain hospitalized. The cases of the mysterious illness were geographically dispersed across Iraq and came from different units.

The Defense Department has activated two medical teams to investigate the causes of the serious cases among soldiers deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Concerns over the sickness have increased with the deaths and U.S. officials acknowledge it is unusual for healthy young males to die as a result of pneumonia, ABCNEWS' Claire Shipman reported on Good Morning America today.

One of the U.S. soldiers who died was 20-year-old Spc. Joshua Neusche of Montreal, Mo., who fell ill near Baghdad in late June. He was taken to the Landstuhl military base in Germany for special treatment, but he died on July 12.

The other soldier, whose name has not been released, died about a month before Neusche.

Speaking on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today, Neusche's father, Mark Neusche, said he hoped the U.S. Army's investigation would help his son's comrades still stationed in Iraq.

"We want to know why," said Neusche. "A perfectly healthy 20-year-old does not drop in a matter of hours from pneumonia and fall into a coma and never come out of it. That's our main question. We need to find out why so we can help other soldiers."

Looking for a Cause

The Pentagon says the possibility that a biological weapon was used was investigated and is not the case, nor was an infectious agent common to all the cases identified. The Pentagon has also ruled out SARS and Legionnaire's disease.

But while the Army has determined that the two deaths were caused by a bacterium, the origin of the other 13 serious cases remains a mystery.

"The doctor had told us that he'd gotten into some kind of toxin, that it had caused the pneumonia and it was eating into his muscle structure starting with his liver and kidneys," said Neusche.

But according to Col. Robert DeFraites, the surgeon general's senior preventative-medicine physician, the list of possible causes of pneumonia is "very long" and there may be different explanations for every case.

Retracing Patients' Steps

The two epidemiological consultation teams sent overseas to investigate will supplement ongoing investigations into the causes of the disease, say U.S. military officials.

One team has been sent to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where most of the cases were treated after evacuation. The other is supplementing investigations in Iraq in fact-finding and analysis missions.

The teams are expected to retrace the steps of the victims in Iraq, including examining soil, water and air to determine if these factors might have played a part in the infection as well as look for commonalities among the cases.

Currently, medical officials have identified no infectious agent common to all the cases.

Since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, 59 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action, according to U.S. military officials.

But quoting from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a U.S.-based tracking Web site, the British newspaper The Guardian today listed the total number of U.S. deaths in Iraq since May 1 as 112, much higher than the combat deaths figure.

Although the Pentagon does not list the causes of non-combat deaths in Iraq, the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count listed 23 deaths due to car or helicopter accidents, 12 other U.S. soldiers were killed in accidents with weapons or explosives, three deaths have been categorized as "possible suicides", three have died from illness, and three from drowning. The rest are unexplained.

For Neusche's mother, Cynthia Neusche, the death of her son in Iraq remains a mystery.

"It's just like somebody disappearing," she told Good Morning America. "I know he died, I just don't know why."

ABCNEWS' Claire Shipman contributed to this report.

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