Rare blood infection detected in several servicemembers injured during war
November 20, 2004
ARLINGTON, Va. — Servicemembers injured in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan are coming down with a rare blood infection that is proving very resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report, which was released this week, said that 102 patients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and three other military health care sites were diagnosed with the infection between Jan. 1, 2002, and Aug. 31, 2004.
Of those infections, 83 percent cropped up in servicemembers who had been wounded while serving in the Iraq and Kuwait region during Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, the report said.
Military researchers are concerned because such a large number of these cases is unusual, Navy Capt. Joe Malone, director of the Defense Department’s Global Emerging Infections section at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., told Stars and Stripes in a Thursday telephone interview.
The infection, Acinetobacter baumannii, is well known to doctors and has shown up in patients hospitalized all over the globe, but it is not especially common, Malone said.
In fact, the organism causes just 1.3 percent of infections reported by hospitals, according to the report.
A. baumannii, as researchers call the bacteria, has two qualities that make it difficult to control its effects.
The first is that the bacteria can live for weeks at a time on hard surfaces such as tables or doorknobs, Malone said.
The second issue is that the organism is resistant to standard antibiotics, making “treatment of infections attributed to A. baumannii … increasingly difficult,” the report said.
The report noted, “The importance of infection control during treatment in combat and health-care settings and the need to develop new antimicrobial drugs to treat these infections.”
Officials would not comment on symptoms, how they are identified or the severity of the cases.
Now that the cluster of cases has been identified, the next step is for researchers to determine why so many deployed servicemembers are coming down with the infection, Malone said.
“We’re working very hard to investigate why” these members were infected, Malone said.
Military researchers aren’t beginning from scratch in their hunt for the source of the problem, however.
During the Vietnam War, the bacteria “was reported to be the most common [bacteria of this class] recovered from traumatic injuries to extremities,” the report said.
And since the some of the more recent cases occurred in members with similar injuries, “environmental contamination of wounds” might be a potential source of the infection, the report said.
“Environmental contamination” is the medical term for some kind of virus or bacteria a person might pick up from wherever he or she is at the time.
But while some of the patients in the report had the infection when they were first admitted to military medical facilities, the report said, researchers still don’t know whether the members picked up the bacteria at the time they were wounded, during the evacuation process, or at a military medical facility in the field, the report said.
So while researchers plan to look at whether the military patients picked up the bacteria in the hospital where they were first diagnosed with the infection, the investigation will also include “detailed reviews of geographic locations where injuries occurred and reviews of the movement of injured patients through treatment facilities,” the report said.