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MRIs to detect war-zone brain injuries delayed

Apr. 15, 2011 - 08:15AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 15, 2011 - 08:15AM  |  
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Troops in Afghanistan may have to wait 10 to 12 months for advanced medical machinery for treating concussions, raising concerns among top military leaders that the equipment will not be available for potentially hundreds of sevice members with mild brain injuries.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, requested in November that magnetic resonance imaging machines, or MRIs, be sent to the battlefield to help doctors see and better treat an otherwise invisible wound. But efforts to send two MRI machines have met with resistance from military medical leaders who do not share the same sense of urgency.

Mullen says he knows that buying the machines cannot be done overnight. "(But) is it going as fast as I would like? No. Because [MRI technology] is not out there and I've got kids, I've got young ones, getting blown up," Mullen said. "Tomorrow's not soon enough."

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, agreed. "It's absolutely essential," Chiarelli said.

All three said they have relied on civilian scientific brain experts for guidance on whether the imaging machines would be useful.

But military medical leaders in Afghanistan say MRI technology is more for research and chose not to make an urgent request for it, spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. John Dorrian says.

Army surgeon-general Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker said that although an MRI is a helpful tool in battlefield care, it is not essential for diagnosis.

The Navy surgeon-general, Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, echoed the view that an MRI is primarily a research tool.

Without an urgent demand, the two machines for $9 million must be acquired through competitive bidding, the Navy says. They will not reach Afghanistan until August at the earliest, Robinson says.

More than 300 U.S. troops per month suffered concussions last year in Afghanistan. Mullen's science adviser, Army Col. Christian Macedonia, said if purchased outright, without competitive bidding, MRI machines could go to the war zone in a period of weeks.

"The mysteries of our bureaucracy never cease to amaze," he said.

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