Thursday, July 30, 2009

US surgeons drafted in as British medics exhausted by casualty surge

The surge in British casualties in Afghanistan has left military surgeons so exhausted that a US surgical team has been drafted in to help.

The British doctors have also been overwhelmed with casualties from other nations, including US Marines, Afghan troops and civilians.

Extra British plastic surgeons have had to be sent to the field hospital at Camp Bastion in central Helmand along with additional X-ray technicians and specialist nurses.

The Ministry of Defence revealed that 57 soldiers had been wounded in action in the first two weeks of this month, the worst casualty figure since British troops deployed to Helmand province in 2006. The previous highest toll of those injured, 46, was in June — but that was for the whole month. In the same two-week period, 15 soldiers were killed.

Of the 57 wounded in action, nine were categorised as “very seriously injured” with life-threatening wounds, and seven were “seriously injured”.

In one week alone this month, 157 wounded people were brought to the Bastion field hospital for treatment, although they were not all British. The toll was recorded during Operation Panther’s Claw, launched on June 19 to sweep the Taleban out of central Helmand.

Surgeon Rear-Admiral Lionel Jarvis, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (health), said: “Because of exhaustion among our surgeons and the very long hours that they were working, we talked to our coalition colleagues and a surgical team from one of the US facilities has moved temporarily down to reinforce the facility in Bastion.”

Colonel Peter Mahoney, defence professor of anaesthesia and critical care at the Royal Centre of Defence Medicine at Selly Oak in Birmingham, gave a graphic description of the emotional strains suffered by the British medical staff at the Bastion hospital.

“It has been very stressful dealing with all these young people, cutting away the camouflage [uniform] that you know is one of your own. It’s very distressing,” he said at a press conference at the MoD to announce the latest casualty figures.

Already this year 61 British troops have been seriously or very seriously injured, compared with 65 for the whole of 2008.

It was also revealed that additional beds may have to be provided at the defence rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, near Dorking, Surrey, to cater for the rise in military patients who have had amputations. Last month there were 30 new patients at the Selly Oak hospital and at Headley Court — double the number that have been admitted at any time this year. The figure is likely to be exceeded when the July total is published.

The casualty figures show that since 2001, when British troops were first sent to Afghanistan, 753 Service personnel have been treated for battle wounds.

The scale of the wounded figures so far this year has underlined the intensity of the fighting in Helmand where British soldiers are based.

In 2006 85 were wounded in action, although troops did not deploy until April of that year. In 2007 the figure rose to 234, then to 235 last year. A total of 199 have been wounded up to July 15 this year.

Dr Kate Harrison, who is responsible for compiling the injury figures for the MoD, dismissed claims that the casualty tolls released did not reflect the true total.

“We hide nothing. These figures are what comes to us from the chain of command,” she said.

The Bastion hospital was not only treating wounded British personnel, she said. The medical teams were also dealing with injured Americans, Danes and Estonians serving in Helmand as well as Afghan troops and civilians.

The Defence Medical Service is trying to recruit more specialist doctors and nursing staff to handle the flow of casualties. The service has a requirement for 150 specialist nurses but that total has still to be met.

It was also revealed that there have been two recorded cases of swine flu among personnel in Afghanistan.



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