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Grace Carlson

The Dread Beriberi

(27 July 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 30, 27 July 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

So many stories of the horrors of war have been reported in the press that newspaper readers are becoming callous to accounts of suffering and death – especially in far corners of the earth. But the recent report from Japan that the war caused a 300 per cent increase in the number of cases of the dread beriberi is shocking news to those of us who believe that unnecessary suffering and death should be ended in Japan, as well as in the United States.

Beriberi IS unnecessary. The 100,000 deaths which are caused every year by beriberi are unnecessary. The pain and suffering endured by another half million people who are made ill by beriberi each year are all unnecessary. But. unnecessary or not, under the imperialist organization of the world, beriberi is the scourge of the Orient.

In his autobiography, An American Doctor’s Odyssey, Dr. Victor Heiser gives a graphic account of his experiences with beriberi patients in the Far East:

“Beriberi caused a multiple neuritis affecting both the motor and the sensory nerves. The extremely painful inflammation brought about a partial and even complete loss of the use of the muscles supplied by these nerves, and particularly affected the heart ... I remember the impression made upon me by the huge hospital for beriberi incurables at Singapore, where these poor people were crawling around on their hands, dragging their paralyzed legs behind them. The disease was too far advanced for a cure; it might easily have been prevented.”

Beriberi is a food deficiency disease. It is caused by a lack of vitamin B-1 in the diet. The best sources of vitamin B-l are lean meats, whole grain cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables. But millions of poverty-stricken Oriental peoples never eat such food. They live on fish and polished rice – and very inadequate amounts!

The plight of the mass of Far Eastern peoples is made still more difficult because of the vast amount of back-breaking labor that they do. It has been scientifically demonstrated that very active individuals need more vitamin B-l than others. But the peoples of Japan, India, the Philippines and other Far Eastern countries who do more than their share of hard physical labor have far less than their share of the vitamin-rich food which could help them to carry their load.

The very name of the disease was coined by workers of Ceylon, who suffered under the whips of imperialist overlords. In Singhalese, beriberi means “I cannot, I cannot.”

I like to think that some day we’ll change this cry of helpless despair to a triumphant “We can!”

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