As Memorial Day arrives to herald the start of summer, it’s time to pause in remembrance of U.S. Armed Forces members who lost their lives during service to their country. And, over the course of time, hundreds of thousands of those lives were claimed by silent soldiers that have no loyalty to country or flag, with no respect for borders: infectious diseases.
During the U.S. Civil War, disease claimed more lives than bullets; upwards of two-thirds of deaths in the war were attributed to disease. Smallpox, along with dysentery, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles, malaria, consumption (tuberculosis) and a host of other infectious diseases, cut a swath through soldiers on both sides.
Often before they even faced their human enemies, soldiers were hit by a wave of infection, soon after arrival in camp. Those from rural areas were most vulnerable, lacking the immunity to childhood diseases those from urban areas often had. And, disease epidemics played a significant role in halting several major campaigns during the Civil War, with these delays prolonging the fighting by as much as two years.
In a New York Times article, historian Carole Emberton writes of her great-great grandfather’s struggle with smallpox, which he contracted as a Union solider serving in Mississippi. Emberton writes: “He had faced down an enemy (smallpox) much older, and in the grand scheme of things far deadlier, than the Confederacy. But there were no medals earned from his victory.”
Major medical advances in prevention (vaccines) and treatment (antibiotics) reversed the high level death from disease during World War II.
According to a publication in the Oxford Journals, the ratio of disease-associated to battle-associated deaths in the US military has dramatically decreased — from 1:1 in World War I to less than 0.01:1 in the Persian Gulf War. But the story of disease and war doesn’t stop there: “Despite these successes, nonbattle injuries due to disease still account for the majority of illnesses encountered by military personnel in modern warfare campaigns, such as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Although data reflecting the overall use of military medical treatment facilities during OIF and OEF are not available, the most common presentation to a military treatment clinic in Iraq was for infectious diseases-related illnesses.”
While the number of deaths has been reduced, the effect of disease on the military still remains. Vector-borne diseases, like dengue fever, malaria and cutaneous or visceral leishmaniasis, offer very real threats to today’s military, along with tuberculosis, diarrheal disease and a host of other infections.
At IDRI, we are working on new solutions that will protect everyone facing the threat of disease both here in the U.S. and around the world. Happy Memorial Day … remembering all those who have lost their lives in the battle against infectious disease.