Acinetobacter Infections Harming Troops in Iraq

Posted on February 5, 2007

A story published in Wired says injured U.S. soldiers are facing dangerous infections from multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii in addition to their battle wounds. The article says 700 troops have been infected since the Iraq War began in 2003.

Since OPERATION Iraqi Freedom began in 2003, more than 700 US soldiers have been infected or colonized with Acinetobacter baumannii. A significant number of additional cases have been found in the Canadian and British armed forces, and among wounded Iraqi civilians. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has recorded seven deaths caused by the bacteria in US hospitals along the evacuation chain. Four were unlucky civilians who picked up the bug at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, while undergoing treatment for other life-threatening conditions. Another was a 63-year-old woman, also chronically ill, who shared a ward at Landstuhl with infected coalition troops.

Behind the scenes, the spread of a pathogen that targets wounded GIs has triggered broad reforms in both combat medical care and the Pentagon's networks for tracking bacterial threats within the ranks. Interviews with current and former military physicians, recent articles in medical journals, and internal reports reveal that the Department of Defense has been waging a secret war within the larger mission in Iraq and Afghanistan - a war against antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Acinetobacter is only one of many bacterial nemeses prowling around in ICUs and neonatal units in hospitals all over the world. A particularly fierce organism known as MRSA - methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - infects healthy people, spreads easily, and accounts for many of the 90,000 fatal infections picked up in US hospitals each year. Another drug-resistant germ on the rise in health care facilities, Clostridium difficile, moves in for the kill when long courses of antibiotics have wiped out normal intestinal flora.

The article explains how the difficulties of keeping injured soldiers alive on ships and in battlefield tent hospitals makes it difficult to keep conditions clean enough to keep the drug-resistant bacteria away. The article also explains how the antibiotic resistant bacteria has spread to the civilian population in England, Germany and the U.S. Wired says genetic researchers have found that the bug found solutions to resisting antiobiotics by swapping genes with other bugs.
When a team of geneticists unlocked the secret of the bug's rapid evolution in 2005, they found that one strain of multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii carries the largest collection of genetic upgrades ever discovered in a single organism. Out of its 52 genes dedicated to defeating antibiotics, radiation, and other weapons of mass bacterial destruction, nearly all have been bootlegged from other bad bugs like Salmonella, Pseudomonas, and Escherichia coli.

In the open source world of bacteria, everyone is working for the resistance. Ramping up the immunity of any single organism, while dramatically increasing the size of the population most susceptible to infection, only helps the enemy. To an aspiring superbug, war is anything but hell.

Merlin Clark, the wife of a U.S. contractor working in Iraq who was infected with the bacteria, has set up a website, Acintobacter baumannii in Iraq, that provides information about the bacteria and keeps up with outbreaks.

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