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Injured U.S. Troops Battle Drug-Resistant Bacteria

Marine Sgt. David Emery was manning a checkpoint outside Haditha, Iraq, in early 2007 when he was seriously injured in an attack by a suicide bomber.

The 22-year-old Pennsylvanian lost both of his legs, not just because of the blast, but also because of a subsequent infection by the highly drug-resistant bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii.

Before the Iraq war, the pathogenic bacteria — which U.S. troops simply call Iraqibacter — attracted little attention. The bacteria enter the bloodstream through open wounds or tubes such as catheters inserted in the body. Initially, it was seen in military personnel being treated for life-threatening injuries in Iraq field hospitals. But hundreds of cases have since been reported, and the Department of Defense says seven service members have died from the bacterial infections.

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For survivors, the bacteria's effects are often gruesome — including the loss of limbs — and treatment is hampered by its growing resistance to all but one antibiotic, which can be highly toxic. Doctors say the bacterial strain has complicated the recovery of hundreds of injured service members returning from Iraq such as Emery.

Col. Duane Hospenthal, the infectious disease consultant to the Army Surgeon General, toured combat facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year. He says more can be done to prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacteria within the military health care system. He says doctors working at the medical facilities operated by different branches of the military lack a way to systematically share and analyze information on emerging drug-resistant bacteria.

Produced by David Schulman and Davar Iran Ardalan, and edited by Jenni Bergal.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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