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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Number of military pneumonia cases not unusual

CNN's Sanjay Gupta
CNN's Sanjay Gupta

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Two U.S. Army medical teams are helping investigators to determine what caused about 100 cases of pneumonia in the Persian Gulf, including two deaths.

CNN's Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta discussed the development Tuesday with CNN's Heidi Collins.

COLLINS: This is quite alarming.

GUPTA: It is. A couple of important points right at the top: First off, it does not appear to be a cluster. It does not appear to be a local epidemic. Two teams ... are going out to investigate. These teams are made up of disease specialists and epidemiologists to get a sense of how pervasive these pneumonias are.

Here's what we know so far based on all the numbers. About 100 cases or so of pneumonia in that particular region. Two people have died. Fifteen of that 100 have required ventilators. Two of those patients have died; three are still in the hospital -- including one who is still on a ventilator -- and 10 patients have recovered.

I mentioned it doesn't appear to be a cluster. It does not appear to be any kind of local epidemic. It really is pervasive throughout this particular region of the world.

... Iraq [is] where most of the cases are. ... There are cases in Kuwait as well as in Uzbekistan and in Qatar.

The Army says it's not unusual for this many cases of pneumonia to be present. There have been, if you look back through history, since 1998, for example, 17 U.S. soldiers have died of pneumonia. That's over the last five years or so. So two in this particular year [is] not highly unexpected, although [it's] a little bit unusual in that one person died of multiple organ failure.

There are other things they know about these cases so far as well. They do not appear to be linked to any specific infectious organism. That is to say that there is not one organism causing all the pneumonias in these various soldiers. Illnesses [have been] in different locations.

And a big question that people having been asking -- is this in any way linked to biological or chemical weapons? [It] does not appear to be the case at this point.

COLLINS: So what happens now that these medical teams have been deployed? What will they do once they get there?

GUPTA: Well, the important thing is to try and figure out what is the organism that's possibly causing the pneumonia in all these various folks.

Here's one way of looking at it: Is there a bacteria or a fungus, or something that's coming from the conditions in this particular area of the world? Is there something coming from the soil, for example, that's getting into people's lungs and causing a pneumonia, or is there a bacteria that's actually going around and being spread person to person, and only infecting certain people, making certain people sick? That's sort of what they're going to try and figure out over the next several weeks.

They have done autopsies on the two who have died, and they are starting to get some of those results back now. It does appear that the bacteria that caused the pneumonia was actually a pretty common form of strep. Strep is a very common bacteria. This appears to be a form of that. That's at least the initial data.

But again, the important point obviously -- this is of concern because there have been 15 people dramatically affected by this, but over the years, about 400 to 500 cases of pneumonia typically affect people in any given year. Again, [with] U.S. soldiers, that's about nine cases or so per 10,000 people. These numbers aren't out of whack with that. They actually sort of fall into those parameters.

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