Special Report

Wars Where Diseases Killed More Americans Than Combat

Department of Veterans Affairs records show that in the nearly 250 years since the country’s founding, about 1.2 million members of the United States military have died in American wars. For most of that period, however, the biggest threat to American troops was not combat. Until the mid-20th century, the No. 1 killer of American service members in wartime was disease. 

Limited by the medical knowledge of the time, for nearly a century and a half, doctors and nurses were virtually powerless to treat infectious diseases that spread through American military bases both at home and abroad. Poor sanitation and hygiene practices at military outposts often exacerbated the problem, allowing disease to spread rapidly through the ranks. 

These circumstances came with devastating consequences, not only reducing manpower, but also eroding morale, and often impacting military strategy and tactics. 

Using data from medical journals, government reports, military museums, and more, 24/7 Wall St. identified the wars in which more Americans died of disease than combat. 

Many of the wars on this list were waged on foreign soil, in areas where Americans were exposed to new bacteria and viruses for which they had not developed any immune defenses. Even in the wars fought within the United States, many American troops were leaving their hometown for the first time, marching through unfamiliar areas with radically different climates and new health risks. Some of the most common diseases that claimed the lives of thousands of troops included typhus, malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever. (Here is a look at the wars with the most U.S. military deaths.)

By the time the United States entered World War I, advances in sanitation – particularly water treatment and purification – greatly reduced the threat of bacterial infections. However, WWI also coincided with the global outbreak of the Spanish Flu, a disease that killed an estimated 45,000 American troops alone. And by World War II, new vaccines limited the risks posed by certain viruses. (Here is a look at alarming outbreaks currently ongoing in the U.S)

Click here to see wars where diseases killed more Americans than combat.

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