My Worlds Collide: Global Conflict and Public Health

After years of writing about Asia and globalization, politics and conflict, I’ve taken on a new gig as the community manager and frequent blogger at Certainly, there are a lot of new skills and background to pick up as I learn more about health in America, but, as it turns out, my dual interests are also not that far apart.

My exploration of how health and global conflict collide is not new, but I am beginning to think about it in news ways. This week, Zócalo Public Square ran my review of War and the Health of Nations, a dissertation-turned-book by political scientist Zaryab Iqbal. Here’s a piece of the review, which explains some of the findings of her study:

“The 1991 Gulf War destroyed Iraq’s high quality public health facilities. Child mortality surged from 257 to 1,536 per 100,000 children from 1990 to 1995. Typhoid cases increased more than tenfold, according to the World Health Organization. Iqbal’s research seeks to quantify these kinds of effects of conflict on public health using statistical data. She relies heavily on World Health Organization Health-Adjusted Life Expectancy (HALE) records, which count the average number of healthy years rather than simple life expectancy.

A causal relationship is difficult to establish — countries in conflict tend to have an array of social problems that affect health — but the correlation is strong. Comparing data from 1999 to 2005, she found that place with conflicts or conflicts in the previous year have dramatically lower HALEs. People in those countries have about eight years less of healthy living compared to countries without conflict. Each year of conflict a country endures, she found, costs its population about five healthy months on average. Looking back 40 years, before the World Health Organization began tracking HALE, Iqbal found that fertility and infant mortality rates increased, while life expectancy decreased in major conflicts, where more than 1,000 people die in a year, and also in protracted minor conflicts with at least 25 deaths in a year. She also found that on average, government spending on health decreased by 21 percent in years with major conflicts.”

This week, doctors and students, academics and activists, gathered at the War & Global Health conference in Seattle. I’m just now digging into the wealth of content on the site, but, as it turns out, there are a lot of studies geared toward showing that conflict has serious public health consequences beyond casualties — not news to anyone who has lived in a conflict zone, but the numbers can be startling. Reporter Tom Paulson had an interesting take on the conference, and helps to prevent the oversimplification of “war is bad for your health”: “Most of those attending the conference clearly shared the bias that war is bad for health. Since the meeting was co-organized by UW students, I searched in vain for someone wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt so I could ask if war could ever be good for health, if fought to improve social welfare (Cuba does have some pretty good health stats).” Paulson also highlights studies that show that even in victorious countries, public health suffers from conflict.

I’m continuing to dive into the research — my next Zócalo review will be about James Mittleman’s new book Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity, which explores how our connectivity affects our security. As always, I’m looking for more to read to give myself a base to be a better reporter. Suggestions welcome.