Sunday, August 7, 2011

Disease Among The Troops

Disease swept through the crowded army camps. Young soldiers from rural areas had never been exposed to common contagious diseases and thousands were felled by measles, chickenpox and mumps.

Black troops showed proportionately higher rates of disease and mortality. Black soldiers were diagnosed with anemia twice as frequently as white troops, and among those who had been in slavery in the southeast, there was a high incidence of intestinal worms.

Disease made its way into the civilian population. Thousands died from yellow fever and malaria. Physicians believed these diseases were caused by the vapors given off by swamps. The term “malaria” was derived from the Italian Mala Aria, meaning “harmful air”.

Yellow fever was a highly contagious and deadly disease. In 1864 it ravaged the town of Newbern, North Carolina. Union forces had won a victory there is 1862 and continued to hold Newbern as a base to the end of the war. Their physicians battled other epidemic diseases among the troops and the civilians.

“Malarial poison” was another name for the swamp vapors that were believed to cause malaria. The doctors in Newbern treated an outbreak by putting the patients into a hot bath. While a hot bath wouldn’t have cured the disease, bathing the patient probably had other beneficial effects, such as discouraging the fleas that carried typhus and the flies that carried typhoid fever.

One of the few epidemic diseases that could be held in check was smallpox. The smallpox vaccine and quinine for malaria were some of the only prophylactic drugs available.


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