The Defence Analytical Services and Advice (DASA) organisation recorded 27 disease related deaths and 1235 major and serious injuries and illnesses (437 per 100,000 personnel) in the year 2009-10. The majority (88%) of the injuries and illnesses were experienced by the Army and rates across all three services have soared over the last decade with the Army again experiencing the largest increase. This, the Ministry of Defence attributes to improved awareness of health and safety in the workplace resulting in incidences of injury and illness being reported when before they wouldn’t have been recorded. The proportion of illness to injury was not indicated in the top level data although accompanying statistics indicated that by far the higher percentage of the total for injuries and illnesses was comprised of injuries.
It is only when we turn to the study carried out by the American National Institute of Health (NIH) between 2005 and 2009 at one military hospital in the Midlands, that looked at ‘British military personnel hospitalised due to infectious disease’ that information about where the diseases were contracted and what diseases they were is made apparent. The study also brings into sharp focus the extent to which illness and disease deprive the military of experienced and, in these days of cut backs, desperately need personnel for considerable periods of time.
The sample comprised 138 service personnel, 95% of which were male and 71% of whom were from the Army. 38% of the sample had been infected in Afghanistan, 14% in Belize and the majority of the rest during operational postings outside of the UK. 45% of them had been hospitalised with dermatological conditions such as Cutaneous Leishmaniasis (27%) and 29% with conditions collectively categorised as ‘undifferentiated febrile illnesses’, resulting from amongst other diseases Sand-fly fever and Q fever.
From the point of view of the operational efficiency of the Armed Forces, the most concerning statistic concerned the length of time the infected service personnel had to take off duty to recover from their illnesses. For those hospitalised for on average three days, an average twenty further days had to be taken off duty to recover. For those who attended the hospital as out-patients on an average of just one occasion, the recovery period before returning to duty averaged out at twenty two days.
It can be imagined that if the study’s findings on days lost to disease and illness were extrapolated to encompass the entire military, the bottom line figure would not make happy reading for the Secretary of State for Defence. The service personnel who were infected and made ill are, of course, all too aware of the personal costs to themselves.
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