Afghanistan medics ‘close to being overwhelmed’

By Alex Stevenson

Field hospitals in Afghanistan are struggling to cope with the high numbers of injured soldiers requiring treatment, a report has found.

In October 2009 the surgery facilities were in use for more than 16 hours on five days, the National Audit Office’s report found.

It assessed the treatment of the 522 military personnel who were seriously injured on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan between October 2001 and October 2009 is largely positive.

The report noted that the number of ‘unexpected survivors’ – those who were expected to die from their injuries but did not – has been unexpectedly high and praises the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) hospital and rehabilitation centre in Britain.

In Afghanistan, however, the field hospital at Camp Bastion has remained “close to capacity” as the number of injured or ill service personnel almost doubled in the last three years.

“The department’s August 2009 review concluded that, following the latest increases, resources are sufficient but the hospital continued to be close to capacity,” the report stated.

“The field hospital has increased capacity further for short periods of high casualty levels by using contingent equipment, such as ventilators, and calling off-duty medical staff to assist.”

There were 360 medical staff in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 and the surgeon general, Philip Raffaelli said he welcomed the NAO’s recognition of their achievements.

“But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels and are working hard to build upon the success we have achieved in combining the best NHS expertise with our Defence Medical Services,” he commented.

“All of our military and civilian medical staff – those in Afghanistan, the teams who transfer our injured personnel back to the UK, and those in our facilities back home – do a fantastic job looking after our troops and providing the outstanding care that they deserve.”

Veterans minister Kevan Jones said last summer’s Operation Panther’s Claw had demonstrated the government was providing the “capacity to cope with an increase in casualty numbers”.

He added: “We have contingency plans in place to deal with the unexpected.” Operation Mushtarak, the first major offensive since Panther’s Claw in which British forces are involved, is taking place in central Helmand province this week.