FOR THREE DECADES following the end of World War II, Vietnam was subjected to nearly continuous warfare as it struggled to free itself from foreign domination. During the latter stages, Laos and Cambodia were also drawn into the conflict.
The most intensive period lasted from 1961 to 1975, when some 14 million metric tons of bombs and other explosives were discharged in the three countries, primarily in Vietnam. The bombing caused serious damage to the environment and heavy loss of human life. It also resulted in the impairment of public health services and severe disruption of family life.
Among the health effects of the war were widespread physical injuries to both the military and civilian populations. Nearly every Vietnamese family experienced at least one war-related death. A great many soldiers and civilians were mutilated and/or disabled, creating a major problem of rehabilitation. The suffering has continued since the end of the war, with extensive casualties from landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind. There is such a vast amount of UXO remaining in the landscape that it will continue to cause death and disability for many years to come.
In addition to the physical injuries, there was an increase in the frequency of certain infectious diseases, especially cholera, plague, malaria and tuberculosis. Infectious diseases were much more deadly in northern Vietnam, due mainly to inadequate supplies of antibiotics. Following the formal conclusion of the war in 1975, the incidence of communicable diseases decreased as public health services were gradually re-established.
An additional major health risk has been posed by herbicides and other chemicals sprayed during the war. Agent Orange was the most widely used defoliant, comprising 61 percent of the 72 million liters applied. Among the other herbicides used were agents Blue, White and Purple. In addition to being used for the defoliation of forests, herbicides were also applied to agricultural crops in order to reduce the food supply.
* * *