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Landlocked Laos Challenges Personal Health

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii, July 9, 1996 – Army and Air Force medics deployed to Laos in July and August will encounter a rugged, hostile environment, primitive living conditions, and the threat of tropical diseases.

Laos encompasses 146,816 square miles, making it slightly larger than Utah. It is bordered on the north by China and Burma, to the east by Vietnam, on the south by Cambodia and on the west by Thailand. Its capital, Vientiane, is near the Thai border, along the Mekong River. With a population of around 200,000, it is the country's only major city and represents only a fraction of the total estimated population of 4.8 million.

Sixty percent of Laos is covered by dense jungle or rugged mountains. Only 4 percent of the land is arable, and Laotians farmers produce only enough to feed their families. Misuse of land has resulted in deforestation and soil erosion, while uncontrolled waste disposal has contaminated most of the country's water supply.

Primitive rural and urban living conditions, no basic public health infrastructure and the tropical climate make the medical threat significant to visitors and deployed military forces, according to public health officers at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

In addition, the American teams will deploy to Laos during the height of the monsoon season, which lasts from May into October. During July and August, the country swelters under an average daily high of 88 degrees with 86 percent humidity. Measurable rainfall will occur 18 days during these months.

Before deploying, the U.S. medics required immunizations for hepatitis A and B, influenza, typhoid and Japanese encephalitis, among others. While plague, rabies and cholera occur in Laos, the medics' brief stay doesn't require immunizations for them. Before, during and after deploying, members also require medication to prevent malaria.

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