For each death that occurs as a direct result of war, there are an estimated nine people who die indirectly as a consequence of the conflict.
Wars and armed conflicts occurring in different parts of the world produce devastating effects on the health of affected societies. Families and communities who are forced to flee their homes must contend with situations that create profound physical and mental stress. Violent conflicts not only destroy the way of life of those impacted, but they lead to the dismantling of health care systems, to short and long term psychosocial trauma, to limited access to clean water and nutritious food, and to sexual exploitation and abuse. Infectious diseases also become more prevalent as health care infrastructures are weakened and the number of health care workers decreases due to death, injury and flight. Wars and armed conflicts often result in the dislocation of large numbers of people who lose access to known water and food supplies and are forced to live in cramped conditions; this leads to an increased risk of contracting diseases such as malaria and respiratory tract infections. In 2001 more than half of the outbreaks of infectious diseases occurred in conflict zones.
The challenges created by conflict are further evidenced in the post-war period, where civilians must contend with the mass destruction of their societies and the dire health care needs that cannot be met by a severely weakened social infrastructure. Sanitation systems, water treatment centers and power supplies are often negatively impacted, creating ideal conditions for the incubation and spread of life-threatening illnesses.
The majority of the violent conflicts around the world are occurring in countries where there are already economic and social problems. In countries where children are already vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, the onset of armed conflict can increase death rates up to 24 times, particularly amongst children who are under five years of age. War only adds to the pre-conflict challenges faced by civilians in these societies.
Human rights abuses increase dramatically during periods of violent conflict. Women and children, the most vulnerable members of a society, are forced to experience conflict and displacement in different ways from men because of the gendered division of roles and responsibilities. Women and young girls are targeted and used as pawns in terror campaigns against civilians through rape, forced pregnancy, deliberate HIV infection, and sexual slavery.
The impact of war on human health has consequences not only for those who contract diseases during time of war. Rather, the consequences of the increase of the spread of diseases like HIV during times of conflict have far reaching impacts on future generations. Hundreds of thousands of children in regions of conflict around the world have been orphaned after their parents and extended family die from AIDS. The challenges these orphans experience are incalculable. Often Children as young as 8 years old are forced to take on a parental role for their younger siblings, and have to leave school to find a job in order to feed themselves and their younger dependents.
- Of the 17 countries with over 100,000 AIDS orphans, 13 are in conflict.
Currently, War Child Canada is working with its national partner People 2 People in Ethiopia to support hundreds of AIDS orphans by providing them with basic necessities including food and shelter, access to education, skills training, psychosocial rehabilitation and HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. Heads of households, most of whom are female, are provided with vocational training, and their younger siblings are provided with the necessary resources to gain access to an education.
The large number of different health issues and consequences cannot be examined in isolation, as each one is connected to the other. For example, the ravaging of health care infrastructures severely limits peopleís access to necessary medicines and procedures, resulting in an increased risk of death, disease and long-term health problems. Human bodies that have been directly affected by the traumas of war face further injury as a result of the scarce supply of clean water, quality food and necessary medicines. The impact of destruction and subsequent resource scarcity often leads to sharp increases in infant mortality rates, premature births, and birth defects in regions affected by war.
Raising awareness about the relationship between war and health allows people to respond more effectively to the specific problems faced by victims of conflict, and also forces one to consider the brutal long-term impacts of war and armed conflicts on human health and security.
Want to Learn More?
1. UNICEF, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children
This is an extensive report prepared by Graca Machel, the United Nations Secretary-Generalís Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on children.
2. MEDACT, Challenging Barriers to Health
This is the website of a UK based charity that is taking action around key global issues. Their site includes information on the health impacts of war including weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, and psychosocial trauma.
3. UNIFEM, A Portal on Women, Peace and Security
The United Nations Development Fund for Womenís (UNIFEM) website portal contains country-specific resource pages with up-to-date information on issues relating to womenís lives, including war and health issues.