Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eczema under the guns

Today, depending where you are in the non-German Western world, is Remembrance Day (British Commonwealth), Veteran's Day (US), or Armistice Day (France & Belgium).

My father's father, Titus, served in the 48th Nova Scotia Highlanders in WWI. I've seen a map of his regimental movements and although there were a number of famous place names on the path, I remember only one: Passchendaele. I think Ypres might have been there too. Old Titie, as my dad calls him, apparently used to freak out whenever someone burned the toast at home, because the smell reminded him of poison gas.

Titus was the one grandparent of mine who had eczema. His itch was legendary. "Old Titie was always scratching," my dad says. (I don't remember Titus; he died when I was five.) I don't know whether the stress of being under bombardment would exacerbate eczema, or distract the mind from itch, and with any luck I'll never find out. Eczema must have made life in the trenches even worse. Titus, we can't imagine what you went through. Thank you.

These days, eczema is a condition that disqualifies you from service in the US military. The reason: in 2007, a soldier vaccinated against smallpox gave his two-year-old son the often lethal condition eczema vaccinatum. An all-out medical effort saved the kid. Now, one can understand why eczema disqualifies you from active service: it would make sense that all service members have to be vaccinated against smallpox, a major biological weapon; and the military would face a major problem if soldiers, etc., refused to be vaccinated because they or their families might die from eczema vaccinatum.

The military therefore is only ruling out about 3-5% of recruits, is my guess. The crucial question is whether you've been diagnosed with eczema after the age of 9. I'm not sure what the precise number is, but about 20% of infants get eczema, and only 2% of adults continue to suffer from it.

I do think that we can look at the bright side of the smallpox/eczema question. It's a point of leverage for us. The US government spends a lot of money on the military, and probably wouldn't mind spending a few hundred million more. The Atopic Dermatitis Research Network was given $31 million to study MRSA and other infections in patients with eczema-- but the initial request-for-proposals was actually aimed at studying eczema vaccinatum. It wouldn't hurt to make our concerns about smallpox vaccination widely known; we could attract major funding. Eczema infection researchers might discover powerful new antibiotics, or other ways for us to protect ourselves from infections such as MRSA.


  1. You need to get your facts straight.

    Eczema has been a disqualifying condition in the U.S. military as far back as the Civil War.

    Eczema is quite debilitating.

    It can make it painful for you to handle equipment with your hands, and march on your feet.

    So it is likely you would have trouble comfortably performing some of the basic requirements of military service, or you at least may spend many days on sick leave.

    The smallpox vaccine reaction is just an additional reason for disqualification.

  2. That's interesting. Do you have any reference for your statement?

    I have only seen the regulation that atopic dermatitis after the ninth birthday is disqualifying. No reason is given, and no date the regulation became effective. The vast majority of comments I've read on the topic refer to the smallpox vaccine as the reason.