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Typical diseases of the Afghan war

Soviet military medicine and especially hygiene traditions were not fit for the challenges of Afghanistan. Being a country with a very unusual climate and little access to clean water, the invading army had to adapt and overcome a lot of problems associated with it.

Typical diseases of the Afghan war

Typical diseases of the Afghan war

During the Soviet-Afghan War, Soviet soldiers faced various health problems, including injuries, trauma, and exposure to environmental hazards. But unlike in many modern wars, actual infections would harm the invading forces the most. Some of the typical diseases and health issues experienced by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan include:

  1. Malaria: Afghanistan has a high prevalence of malaria, and Soviet soldiers were at risk of contracting the disease while on duty.

  2. Typhoid fever: This is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted through contaminated food or water. The unsanitary conditions in Afghanistan put Soviet soldiers at risk of contracting typhoid fever.

  3. Hepatitis A: This is a viral infection that can be transmitted through contaminated food or water. The disease was common in Afghanistan, and Soviet soldiers were at risk of contracting it.

  4. Dysentery: This is an intestinal infection that can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain. Soviet soldiers were at risk of contracting dysentery due to poor sanitation and hygiene in Afghanistan.

  5. Respiratory infections: The cold climate in Afghanistan and the living conditions of Soviet soldiers exposed them to respiratory infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and influenza.

  6. Parasitic infections: Soviet soldiers were at risk of contracting parasitic infections such as giardiasis and amoebiasis due to poor sanitation and contaminated water sources.

  7. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): The stress of combat and the traumatic experiences of war can lead to PTSD, a mental health condition that can cause anxiety, depression, and other symptoms.

It's important to note that this list is not exhaustive and that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan faced numerous other health problems and risks. But the ones mentioned above were the most common problems which a typical soviet soldiers or officer had to face during his deployment time.


Acute respiratory disease in Afghanistan

As well as wounds from battle, sickness was prevalent among soldiers.  Upper respiratory disease, pneumonia and bronchitis were serious problems especially in he first four years of the Afghan Intervention.  Soldiers contracted acute pneumonia throughout the year with the more serious and contagious diseases usually in the autumn and winter, less so in the spring and summer.  A number of cases diagnosed as acute respiratory disease were in fact typhoid fever.  With the 40th Army the primary force in Afghanistan as much as a quarter of their capable troop strength could be unavailable for active duty being stricken with disease. 

Typical diseases of the Afghan war

From October to December of 1981 the entire 5th Motorized Rifle Division was deemed combat ineffective with more than 3000 of its fighting force incapacitated with hepatitis.  Every year sickness in one form or another infectious disease struck down vast swathes of the Soviet Army. These were primarily due to the foreign climate, new strains of disease and no immunity to them...this can be seen in the numbers of soldiers in their first year of duty falling ill. Compared to their second year when they had formed some immunity and their sickness levels fell dramatically.


Ways to build immune system

Physical conditioning and acclimatization was very important in disease prevention.  After initial years of war, most new recruits trained for six months before arriving to Afghanistan. They would build up stamina, practice field craft. Medics would learn first aid and field sanitation. None of these, however, prepared soldiers to the reality of the Afghanistan War. 

Typical diseases of the Afghan war

For example, the average load carried by the Soviet combat soldier was around 32kg. Carrying such loads at high altitudes was incredibly hard over distance, especially when a person was not ready for it. And the Soviet training camps were not training soldiers to carry anything heavier than a 5-10kg veshmeshok.

Eventually the Soviets developed a better field gear load, though it was never produced in enough quantities to benefit all the troops. Too many were left to carry impossible loads at high altitudes rapidly deteriorating their health and strength in the harsh conditions leaving them vulnerable to disease and sickness.


Problems with water and spread of infections

Despite the best efforts in prevention, the Soviets were never able to get control over the spread of infectious diseases. The lack of supplies, clean drinking water, poor diet and failure to provide clean clothing on a regular basis only exacerbated the situation and efforts by medicine teams and hospitals to keep illness at bay. The water in Afghanistan has a high bacterial content and, despite warnings, Soviet troops were often forced to drink untreated water, especially in remoter places where logistics failed to provide safe water.  This water often carried typhus and dysentery. 

Soviets started providing boiled water treated with pentoxides to the soldiers, but nothing, however, could guarantee the supply of clean water despite the installing of purification points in garrisons. The underestimation of medical support required to deal with the sick and wounded, well equipped though they were to deal with the wounded it was the large number of sick soldiers they were totally unprepared for.

In order to relieve the overcrowded hospitals the Soviets moved large numbers of patients to hospitals in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. They set up an infectious diseases hospital at Bagram, complete with recovery unit. Here soldiers had medical treatment, two hours rest after dinner, five meals a day, therapeutic physical exercise, vitamin therapy and occupational therapy. Discharged after full recovery, despite this, the Soviet medical teams were hard pressed to keep up and deal with patients suffering from disease.

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