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Beri Beri

‍Many Far East Prisoners of War suffered from Beriberi because of their inadequate diet.

Beriberi is a disease caused by a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) that affects many systems of the body including the muscles, heart, nerves and digestive system. Beriberi literally means 'I can't, I can't' in Singhalese which reflects the crippling effect it has on its victims.

The diet of the FEPOWs consisted to a great extent of polished rice where the husk, which contains thiamine, has been removed. This resulted in a deficiency which led to the contraction of beriberi.

There are different forms of beriberi classified according to the body systems most affected. Dry beriberi involves the nervous system and wet beriberi affects the heart and circulation. Both types usually occur in the same patient but with one set of symptoms predominating.

A less common form of wet beriberi is known as 'shoshin'. This condition involves a rapid appearance of symptoms and acute heart failure. It is highly fatal and is known to arise in persons whose diet consists of white rice.

Beriberi could be treated by reversing the deficiency in diet but this could not be easily achieved in POW Camps. The disease is fatal if not treated and the longer the deficiency exists the sicker the person becomes.