Army vs parents in soldier rabies case

The parents of a US soldier who died of rabies after being bitten by a dog while deployed in Afghanistan want their son's superiors to be held accountable. Specialist Kevin Shumaker died last August, eight months after being bitten by a dog. An Army investigation concluded that he died because members of his unit ignored rules prohibiting keeping pets (they were befriending feral dogs) and that he didn't seek treatment or notify the chain of command after being bitten. His parents feel that their son is being falsely blamed and that people who should have known better didn't do their jobs. It's a complex issue with some interesting questions.

What should the average soldier know about rabies?

It should be assumed they know absolutely nothing to start off, and a risk assessment should be performed for each deployment to determine what they need to know. When they are being deployed to a rabies-endemic area, they need to learn to stay away from dogs and report dog bites promptly, and why.

Whose job is it to report a bite?

At the end of the day, everyone has to be their own advocate and make sure they report any possible rabies exposure. People up the chain of command don't see everything and individuals need to protect themselves. However, once the bite is reported, others have to act. That might be the breakdown here.

Was anyone actually notified?

The Army's investigation actually documents the fact that Spc. Shumaker notified other personnel at least twice. One was a veterinary corps officer and the other was the person doing his post-deployment health screening. Here's where the ball was probably dropped. Every veterinarian knows about rabies. A veterinarian working in a rabies endemic region is certainly aware of the risks and has a responsibility to act on a reported bite. I find it astounding that a veterinarian in this situation wouldn't initiate a response, particularly given the fact that (at least in my limited experience) the US Army Veterinary Corps has some excellent veterinarians, so this seems rather strange. Further, what's the purpose of a post-deployment health screening if health issues that arise are ignored? If the person doing the health screening didn't understand the concerns about rabies, he or she was inadequately trained and shouldn't have been doing the job. If the screener was properly trained and didn't report it, he or she was incompetent, plain and simple.

Would anything have changed the outcome here?

Absolutely. Rabies is almost 100% fatal, but it's almost 100% preventable when post-exposure treatment is given before the onset of disease. There was lots of time in this case between the bite and when the soldier became ill, and if he had been treated following one of these reports, you can almost guarantee he would not have developed rabies.

Whose fault is this?

Well, everyone plays a role here. The soldier ignored the animal contact rules. Superior officers on base presumably ignored the fact that they were ignoring the rules, probably not thinking about the possibility of rabies, and seeing the positive effect on morale of interacting with the dogs. If the veterinary officer and post-deployment health screener were told about the bite and did nothing, they played a huge role since they, of all the people in this chain, should have known better.

What should happen here?

Rather than fighting over who's to blame (the usual response), an investigation should figure out why this happened and how to prevent it from happening again, largely via better training and clear expectations of personnel.

Hopefully that's happening, since Deputy Commanding General Maj. Gen. William Rapp recently approved a series of recommendations, including:

• Further investigation to see if any members of the unit should be disciplined for their actions or omissions during the unit’s deployment to Afghanistan

• Institute an animal-borne disease surveillance program, standardize rabies vaccine requirements and improve dog bite reporting requirements (I'm surprised that wasn't already the case)

• Reinforce animal bite and rabies training for veterinarians and post-deployment health screening staff

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Sheila - February 29, 2012 9:39 AM

Having been deployed to this area more than once, I know that all soldiers are briefed on general order #1 which states that they are to have no contact with the local animals. They are also briefed on the health concerns of the area, including the potential for rabies. Now, soldiers go through a lot of briefings and tuning out is not uncommon.
In addition to being a soldier I am also a part of the Army veterinary services. All of the vets are very much aware of the rabies risks in the area. One of the main jobs for the vet techs there is to euthanize stray/feral cats and dogs and nusiance (non-endangered) wildlife because of rabies.
The main problem is that soldiers ignore the order and the chain of command tends to look the other way because having the "mascot" is good for troop moral. They either don't believe you when you try to explain the reasoning for the restrictions or just don't care. I know I had to explain to several soldiers the risks invovled but was ignored. Then when someone was bitten and we had to destroy their beloved "mascot" the veterinary staff were the bad guys, cold and heartless. I also advised several people to seek medical attention for bites or scratches and they refused because they didn't want the animal to be destroyed. Then they would hide the animal so we couldn't find it.
In my opinion, it is not that the soldiers and their command don't know about the risks, they just feel that the benefit of having the animals around outweighs the risks.

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