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Human face of war
For a healthy person in good physical condition, the effects of contracting malaria can be debilitating. For the Japanese fighting in Papua in 1942, the combination of physical exhaustion, under-nutrition, and poor adherence to preventative measures, resulted in malaria exacting huge losses on troops and severely hampering their ability to fight. Infection by the disease was almost universal in many units, and with treatment at times during the campaign shackled by limited supplies of medicines and trained personnel, mortality rates from malaria were unacceptably high.

The dangers of malaria were known to South Seas Force headquarters, who issued the following instructions on 16 July 1942, prior to the departure of the force from Rabaul.

Notes regarding the prevention of malaria

1. Taking of internal medicines for the prevention of malaria is to be carried out starting two days before the landing, according to the No. 1 Order on "Methods of malaria prevention" of the South Seas Force (one tablet of quinine sulphate every day before supper and one tablet of plasmoquin every ten days). Taking of this medicine is to be strictly enforced. (Pick a supervisor who will be present at the time of taking the medicine.)

2. Lay emphasis to the front-line units on the distribution of medicine for malaria prevention. Medicine for ten days to two weeks will be issued, assuming that to treat one-third of the personnel, it requires medicine for 30 days.

3. Internal medicine for malaria prevention for ten days are distributed to all personnel (ten tablets of quinine sulphate and one tablet of plasmoquin). Each section leader will collect and keep them. Medicine for the next 20 days will be kept by each unit commander and ten days supply will be distributed at a time.

4. Using of mosquito cream (two are issued per person) and smoke coils is to be strictly enforced.

5. Natives who are employed, are to be separated at the billeting area (for the purpose of preventions of malaria and other contagious diseases).

Despite these instructions, however, such preventative measures were largely ignored, as cases of malaria appeared within three days of landing in Papua. Mosquito nets, veils and gloves were issued to the troops, but were generally not used or were discarded due to their being uncomfortable or cumbersome. Insect repellent creams and coils were used, but were in scarce supply at times when even basic foods were not available. Further, the regime of malaria prevention medicines was not systematically followed due to poor education, lack of supply, and the absence of established protocols in the face of harsh battle conditions. Steps to control mosquitos were rarely enacted in the field, where even basic sanitary measures were often discarded.

Soldiers who contracted malaria were generally treated with a combination of quinine, Atebrin and plasmoquin, but irregular supply often resulted in no treatment for days. Only the most serious of cases were evacuated to field hospitals, with mild sufferers following their units so they could rejoin the lines quickly. In combination with the poor hygienic conditions and under-nutrition, this policy was responsible for higher malarial mortality rates compared to those for Allied troops. For soldiers with dysentery, contracting malaria was a virtual death sentence.

Contributed by Steven Bullard (AJRP)

"File of Nankai Shitai Orders: 13 May to 10 July 1942" (Enemy Publication no. 38), AWM 55 5/3, p. 16.

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