COMMENTARY: Preventive health measures can cure many ills

  • Published
  • By Col. James P. Ice
  • 72nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron Commander
Throughout history, disease has had direct impact upon nations' abilities to conduct military campaigns during times of war.

Histories of the U.S. Civil War generally quote total fatalities between 600,000 and 700,000. What is often either not published, or not stressed, is that two-thirds of those fatalities were due to disease or non-battle injuries and not combat.

A tangible example can be seen a few miles from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. There, one can find a Confederate cemetery. Although there was no battle in that location, 1,500 Soldiers died at Camp Nelson from measles and typhoid fever.

During World War I, the "Spanish Flu" epidemic killed 50-100 million people worldwide in 1918 and was particularly devastating in the trenches in Europe. Both Gen. Pershing and Pres. Wilson were sickened, as well, but recovered.

By World War II, medicine and sanitation had improved such that disease fatalities no longer outnumbered combat deaths, but disease still had a large impact on operations. Gen. MacArthur made the following quote in 1943 about malaria: "This will be a long war if, for every division I have facing the enemy, I must count on a second division in hospital with malaria and a third division convalescing from this debilitating disease!"

How does all this apply today? First, 1 million people die worldwide every year from malaria. There were 131 servicemen sickened with that disease during Operation Restore Hope. Likewise, influenza kills up to 49,000 Americans yearly. These are but two illnesses that can adversely impact mission capability.

The primary weapons used to counter diseases are preventive. In addition to food and water sanitation and keeping physically fit, are the various components of the Preventive Health Assessment and Individual Medical Readiness requirements -- the PHA, profiles, immunizations, glasses/gas mask inserts, dental health, and HIV status. The medical group provides services that address each of these issues, from food and water vulnerability assessments, to fitness and nutrition classes, to force health protection medications (to prevent malaria for example), to each clinic involved in Preventive Individual Medical Readiness. However, it has to be remembered that PIMR requirements, as indicated by the name, are an individual's responsibility -- to keep him/herself healthy for when the nation calls. PIMR overall is a unit commander's program, and the medical group sends the commander a datasheet each month to help track each member of the unit to aid the commander in ensuring full combat readiness.

Through teamwork between the medical group, unit leadership and the individual Airman, the horror stories at the beginning of this article can be avoided.