By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED
On March 20, 2020, the Navy embarked a Forward Deployable Preventive Medicine Unit (FDPMU) aboard ships of the 7th Fleet. Its mission: “to help combat the risk of and provide laboratory batch testing for COVID-19.”
The role of Preventive Medical Units (PMUs) in this pandemic is nothing new. PMUs have long been on the frontlines in the war against disease testing and controlling outbreaks.
As far back as World War I, Navy laboratory and sanitation units—forerunners of the PMUs—were deployed aboard ships and to ashore facilities fighting outbreaks of meningitis and influenza; overseeing the prevention and control of other communicable diseases; conducting epidemiological studies; studying sanitary conditions and recommending improvements when necessary, and disseminating public health information to naval personnel.
Beginning in 1941, these teams were reformed as “Epidemiological and Sanitary Units.” Across the United States, these units conducted research and control measures in respiratory diseases, led studies on rheumatic fever and gastro-enteric diseases and contributed to the control of epidemics of meningitis and diphtheria.
The Navy also established Malaria and Epidemic Control Units in World War II, forward-deployed teams focused on minimizing the impact of vector-borne diseases in the Pacific Theater. Sometimes referred to as the “shock troops” against disease, these units oiled, drained and sprayed mosquito breeding areas; surveyed and collected vital statistics on disease; administered anti-malarial drugs; inspected and fumigated all ships and aircraft traveling from malaria-ridden areas; enforced malaria discipline everywhere there were military personnel; and ensured all malaria casualties were promptly hospitalized and treated as expeditiously as possible.
Despite the continuing need for prevention medicine and disease control post-war, the Navy disbanded most of these units during the period of demobilization.
Three years after the war, Rear Adm. Clifford Swanson, Surgeon General of the Navy, likened the peacetime requirement for these units to the access of basic emergency services. In a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations in 1948, Swanson stated: “…the peacetime necessity for epidemic control teams . . . somewhat parallels the necessity for fire departments in that they cannot be organized and trained after the fire breaks out.”
The Navy addressed this need in 1949 by authorizing the permanent establishment of these preventive medical units.
On March 10, 1949, the Navy consolidated the duties of the four remaining World War II epidemiology teams (Nos. 13, 24, 80 and 100) under five Epidemic Disease Control Units (EDCU) in Norfolk, Va. (No. 2), Camp Lejeune (No. 3), Great Lakes, Ill. (No. 4), San Diego, Calif. (No. 5), and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (No. 6). EDCU No. 1 was initially planned for the Naval Medical School Bethesda, Md., but was never placed in operation. A seventh unit was later established in Naples, Italy in 1957.
These units investigated outbreaks of disease stateside and overseas; conducted sanitary inspections and surveys for disease vectors; and oversaw the sanitary control of food, water, waste disposal, and living quarters, among other activities. Then, as now, these units often executed their missions in collaboration with an assortment of federal agencies as well as health departments of various states, cities, territories and foreign countries.
In 1950, the Navy further expanded the preventive medicine program by establishing Fleet Epidemic Disease Control Units (FEDCUs) aboard the landing craft USS LSI(L)-1091 (No. 1) and the auxiliary ship USS Whidbey (AG-141) (No. 2).
Soon after it was acquired from the Army in 1947, Whidbey operated as the Navy’s chief “floating laboratory” in the Pacific. Medical personnel stationed on this ship traveled extensively throughout the Trust Territories in the Pacific, and Formosa (Taiwan) where they conducted health surveys on native populations. In the Korean War, both Whidbey and LSI(L)-1091 were deployed to the combat theater to provide needed epidemiological services and oversee the study and treatment of malaria, enteric and venereal diseases.
In 1952, ECDUs were redesignated “Preventive Medicine Units” and in 1971, they were renamed “Naval Environmental Preventive Medicine Units” (NEPMUs.)
Today, the Navy operates four of these units in Norfolk (No. 2), San Diego (No. 5), and Pearl Harbor (No. 6) and Rota, Spain (No. 7), under the administrative control of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center (NMCPHC) in Norfolk, Va. In 2001, the Navy inaugurated the Forward Deployable Preventive Medicine Unit (FDPMU) an expeditionary platform to “identify, evaluate, and monitor diseases, injuries and hazards in environments that threaten the health of deployed U.S. Forces.”
As the story of COVID-19 continues to unfold and the U.S. Navy will remain all the more resilient and stronger because of the vital services that PMUs continue to play each and every day.
BUMED ltr to BUNAV, A16-P3-3, 1 March 1941. BUMED Record Group 52. National Archives II College Park, MD
“Forward Deployable Preventive Medical Units.” U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center Website. Retrieved from: https://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmcphc/expeditionary-platforms/fdpmus/Pages/default.aspx
Sobocinski, A.B. “Mosquito Fighter Series.” Navy Medical R&D News, 2016.
Swanson, Clifford to CNO. “Epidemic Disease Control Units, Permanent Status of,” 1948. BUMED Record Group 52. National Archives II College Park, MD
U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs. “U.S. Preventive Medicine Teams Embark in the 7th Fleet.” Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Site. Retrieved from: https://www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/130572