Washington (CNN) -- Wounded American military personnel may survive a roadside bomb attack in Iraq only to face possible death later in a U.S. hospital from drug-resistant infection.
Where these potentially lethal superbugs lurk, how they are transmitted and how they can be eliminated remain mysteries for the U.S. military, according to a congressional hearing Wednesday, and a worsening threat for health care around the globe.
Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Arkansas, a physician and chairman of the hearing, said the military had "significantly decreased" the number of infections in military hospitals in the past few years, but problems remain.
"According to the Department of Defense, over 3,300 service members developed Acinetobacter [a group of drug-resistant bacteria] infections from 2004 to 2009," Snyder said. The hearing was before the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
"When you think about what this means for families and individuals who have been wounded, moved to a military facility in-country, moved to Landstuhl [Regional Medical Center, in Germany], come back to the United States and put in one of our military hospitals, have family members down there by then and then they develop one of these infections and have things go south very rapidly, it must be heartbreaking not just for the family but for the health care providers who are trying to take care of this person," Snyder said.
Dr. Jack Smith, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense, said the Pentagon shares Congress' concern about the drug- resistant infections. "We are working to improve our preventive measures, treatment, surveillance and research as we respond to outbreaks," Smith said.
The infections have complicated the care of wounded personnel being evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan. "The source of these bacteria in returning combat-injured personnel has not been fully elucidated," said Col. Duane Hospenthal, infectious diseases consultant to the Army Surgeon General. "But it appears most likely that these bacteria are spread both in the combat theater, [and] along the journey back to and within military medical centers in the United States," Hospenthal said.
Even after publicity and rigorous training of doctors, many patients may seek and receive unnecessary antibiotics, worsening future outbreaks of drug-resistant bacteria. "You only use antibiotics when clinically indicated and you use the most specific antibiotic for that particular organism to prevent the growth of drug resistance," said Col. Jonathan Jaffin of the office of the Army Surgeon General.