MHSRS attendees discuss how to fight infectious disease
Dr. Merlin Robb with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research addresses attendees at the Military Health System Research Symposium, Aug. 15 in Orlando, Florida. Robb was among the many researchers discussing one of the biggest threats facing the U.S. military: infectious disease.
THe U.S. military faces many threats worldwide. But of all the enemies posed, the threat of infectious disease could be the biggest. Whether it’s an infection caused by a gunshot wound or improvised explosive device, or the raging fevers brought by viral infections, the military’s medical research community has focused its efforts to fight those infections that can take more lives than any bullet or bomb.
“We have great research that we’re doing now [against infectious diseases],” said Navy Rear Adm. Colin Chinn, director of the Defense Health Agency’s (DHA) Research, Development and Acquisition Directorate. “Military medicine is at the forefront of tackling them.”
As part of that effort, several sessions at the Military Health System Research Symposium (MHSRS), running through Aug. 18 in Orlando, Florida, have been dedicated to discussing better ways to fight infection. This ranges from battlefield injuries to the human body, to finding ways to defeat HIV, Ebola and the Zika viruses.
During a session on skin and soft tissue infections, Daniel Zurawski, a research scientist with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), said the last decade and a half of warfare brought more than 52,000 wounded U.S. military members. About 10 percent were victims of bacterial infections. He said that’s why new techniques to prevent infections, and treatments once they’ve set in, are so important for the military, as well as the civilian health sector.
“By 2050, antibiotic resistant infections are going to be the largest cause of death [in several countries],” said Zurawski, adding it will take a cocktail of bacteria killers to cover all the bases.
The theme of using a cocktail of medications to address bacterial wound infections was addressed in a separate session by Zurawski’s WRAIR colleague, Anna Jacobs, who is part of the MHSRS’s Young Investigator Competition. Her team tested a mix of antibacterials against A. baumannii, a bacteria that emerged during the Iraq War, especially affecting people in hospitals. They were encouraged by how well the cocktail worked.
“With the combined [antibacterials], we cleared all the infection,” said Jacobs.
While Zika virus is grabbing all the headlines recently, it wasn’t long ago the Military Health System was playing a key role in the fight in West Africa against a much deadlier virus: Ebola. Dr. Mark Kortepeter with the Infectious Disease Clinical Research Program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences said hospitals became the epicenter of the outbreak, challenging caregivers to treat those in need while keeping themselves safe. It’s a threat U.S. military doctors and medics will need to consider as they are sent to global hotspots.
“Military personnel are at risk if they operate in sub-Saharan and now West Africa,” said Kortepeter. That’s why the development of the Ebola treatment, ZMapp, as well as the rise of plasma therapies, has been so important. “There’s an urgent need and historic opportunity to change the data on these medical countermeasures.”
Another fight in Africa has been the decades old struggle against HIV. Dr. Merlin Robb and Sheila Peel, both with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at WRAIR stressed the importance of not just treating the disease, but also making sure the diagnosis was right in the first place. False positives can take too many troops out of the fight, in addition to the unnecessary emotional trauma a wrong diagnosis can bring.
“There is a cost … to put someone on the sidelines as flagged as medically unready,” said Peel, adding you can’t measure the cost emotionally for the doctor and patient for a false positive HIV test. Improved methods will decrease those mistakes.
MHSRS is the Department of Defense’s premier scientific annual meeting, bringing together nearly 2,500 military, academic and private health sector researchers to discuss advances and ways forward for the military’s medical system, especially in the fight against infectious disease. Chinn encouraged those looking for answers to use the gathering to get the knowledge needed into the hands of the caregivers, for the threats of today and tomorrow.
“This a great opportunity,” said Chinn. “Take advantage of your time here.”