Battle Plan against War-Related Brain Injuries Sought

By David M. Brown; Allison M. Heinrichs | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Battle Plan against War-Related Brain Injuries Sought


David M. Brown; Allison M. Heinrichs, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Politicians and doctors in Western Pennsylvania are teaming up to tackle the "signature injury" of the Iraq war.

Traumatic brain injuries can result in lifelong mental problems, speech impairments, memory loss and sometimes death.

"This is probably the most under-sung disease ... of our generation," said Dr. Ross Zafonte, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's federally funded Traumatic Brain Injury Model System.

At the request of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Zafonte, also executive director of the UPMC Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, testified before Congress last week about brain injuries.

Doctors are increasingly concerned with brain injuries from explosions, such as those from roadside bombs used in Iraq. Even if no shrapnel from the blast touches a person's head, shock waves moving through the air can severely injure the brain.

Because of improved armor, soldiers are surviving explosions that otherwise would cause serious injuries to their lungs, hearts and other vital organs. In past wars, such injuries probably masked the brain injuries.

Among veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, about 65 percent have traumatic brain injuries, said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless. He introduced legislation to address traumatic brain injuries in soldiers. It is a field in which UPMC has built expertise for more than a decade. Altmire was a UPMC lobbyist before he was elected.

Between January 2003 and May, 2,414 veterans of service in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated for traumatic brain injuries at the federally funded Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center's nine medical centers, a spokesman said. In all, more than 26,800 U.S. troops have been wounded in Iraq and 1,400 in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense.

Nearly 2 million Americans suffer a form of traumatic brain injury every year, and about 50,000 die, Zafonte told Congress.

Altmire introduced a bill in April -- the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Act -- that was incorporated into an expanded measure the House passed in May. …

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