Diseases and illnesses during the war

Sorry if this has been asked already.

Were there any diseases or illnesses that ran rampant during the war?

How much of a toll did this have on the military and civilian populations and how did they combat them?


Finland had problems with various “Rickettsioses” (typhus) especially in form of ‘pilkkukuume’ (dotted fever?). Disease had been largely defeated in Finland prior to the war so preparations were not exactly as good as what they should have been. However when Finland advanced in the Continuation War (1941-44) large number of Soviet civilians and POWs ended up in the Finnish control - and among whom the disease still existed (luckily also some amount of immunity). So when clustered together like in POW camps or similar the outbreaks were almost inevitable. Lack of proper clothing and poor nutrition didn’t help any.

Since most of this was caused by body louses, the methods used were mostly related to that. Fumigation closets were used for disinfecting clothes, and hot & dry saunas combined with the use of ‘sulfuric soap’ were used for treating people. Living spaces were treated with various means (various methods were used, sulfuric fumigation, chlorine wash, but also chemical agents including the notorious Zyklon B). The Finnish methods were not perhaps the softest as later some of the Russians later complained of these as being ‘torture’ but they were the same the Finns applied for their own troops and civilians so…

You can find plenty of images of these by using search terms ‘täisauna’ ([body] louse sauna), and ‘täikaappi’ ([body] louse closet). There were even separate contraptions for treating horses. Also the Finns used fairly draconian measures to ensure that the disease would not spread among civilians. This meant that health authorities had legal right to do house & body searches and even force people to go through the treatment (i.e. sauna & fumigation). Which caused fair bit of resentment especially as the wartime censorship had kept the typhus epidemics from the news. Vaccine (effective in preventing death, not actual disease) existed but the Finns simply didn’t have enough of it despite of starting their own production during the war.

Because of the measures the death toll among the Finns was very small, but in the camps where the outbreaks actually occurred the numbers were far worse, though the the measured used brought the spreading of the disease under control. Mortality rate was surprisingly small, just a bit over 10 % of those infected, as it in earlier outbreaks had been as high as 40 to 50 %. Altogether among the Finns and those under the Finnish control (incl. POWs & internment camps) there were reported 1407 cases - leading to 150 deaths (for Finns alone those numbers were 48 cases and 9 deaths, of which 20 had been vaccinated and of whom no one died).

As to other notable diseases in wartime Finland: Dysentery was also present (especially in 1944) but only as a rather mild variant. This spread especially among soldiers but also in civilian population (estimated 150 000 cases, less than 100 deaths).


My mother’s family were refugees during WW2, and there were 4 of them travelling in her family. At one point they were all struck with different contagious diseases and all hospitalized in different places in Nazi Occupied Europe. Each of them barely survived their illnesses, and it was only due to my great uncle’s research that her family was able to figure out where everyone had been taken. My great uncle himself had barely recovered from hepatitis at the time. My mother at the time was a little girl of 3 and had diptheria, and was saved by Nazi doctors, but almost adopted by a German family in the process (because she was blonde). My Grandfather had typhus, my grandma had a streptococcus infection, the complications of which affected her health for the rest of her life. The whole situation was very touch-and-go, and it was a bit miraculous that they all survived and were able to reunite.