NEW ORLEANS — Since the beginnings of the Arab Spring, conflict in the Middle East and North Africa has been well-documented. Not as well-documented, however, are the long-term effects that armed conflict has on public health in the Middle East.
From 1950 to 2000, the population of the Middle East and North Africa grew by around 280 million people, which more than triples the previous population numbers. This growth was more than any other major world region experienced during this time. The region contains 6.3 percent of the world’s population but only 1.4 percent of the world’s fresh water.
The stress of a growing population and diminishing natural resources already creates a volatile atmosphere. Governments in the region are constantly struggling to provide infrastructural and public health services for their citizens. This means that additional damage done by armed conflict is particularly harmful.
The presence of conflict also means spending money on treatment of wounded soldiers and civilians. Furthermore, this money — as well as the money funding military action — is often diverted from budgets for health services, education and other valuable social programs.
In Syria, the current conflicts have reduced life expectancy by six years on average for both men and women within only a few years. Other nations in the region, such as Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt have also experienced a reduction in life expectancy of around three months.
Such a sharp reduction in life expectancy is a concrete representation of the systemic damage that armed conflict can have on a nation and a population. Issues that were barely or not at all under control such as poor sanitation and water shortages are being exacerbated, too.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the health-related ramifications of armed conflict. This is because children can be injured directly by conflict. Their parents can also be injured, hindering them and their abilities to take care of the children properly.
Estimates show that in the past ten years, 90 percent of deaths related to war have been civilian deaths. Many of these cases involve sexual violence to mothers. This compounds the hardships of war that affect children. Even if mothers survive, there is palpable risk of mother-to-child transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
Solution-oriented policies for improving health in the Middle East include labor regulations, fighting for women’s rights and being environmentally friendly. However, most obviously and perhaps most importantly, governmental peace and stability is necessary to keep up with the growing demands for infrastructure and services for public health in the Middle East.
– Nathaniel Siegel