Friday, April 27, 2007

Armed Conflict As A Public Health Problem: Current Realities and Future

Featured Speakers: Dr. Christopher Murray, Dr. Scott Barrett

Dr. David Bishai of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health introduced the panel with a famous quote by 20th century Dr. Albert Schweitzer, advising the audience to “Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight”. Human suffering is rampant in places invisible to the vast majority of developed nations and it is with this blindness that we allow it to happen around the world, every single day. Recent research and analysis on armed conflict and human casualties suggests that if we can find a way to quantify and measure human suffering, we may be able to come to a better understanding of its causes and, subsequently, its prevention.

In 2002, Dr. Christopher Murray from Harvard’s School of Public Health published a now distinguished paper on conflict as a public health problem. One of the integral concepts presented is the fact that there are essentially two realities in evaluating this problem: the peace and security literature, and the public health literature.

Over the past 50 years, intrastate conflict has significantly increased, making civil conflicts much more prevalent than international war. Through this increase, there has been a steady decline in global number of battle deaths as the conflict itself does not incur large numbers of casualties. From the perspective of the Peace and Security Literature, this indication of low casualties seems to legitimize war because it appears to be a public health benefit. The problem with the analysis is the consideration of only direct mortality. In civil wars, indirect mortality is almost always the dominant cause of civilian deaths.

More recent and productive studies of casualties carried out by the WHO have consisted of the “Sibling Survival Module”. Following this module, surveyors go door-to-door and ask household members about the health status of their siblings to obtain information on disease and mortality incurred by conflict. Previously, epidemiological surveys had vastly underestimated conflict mortality. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, war mortality estimates produced numbers two orders smaller than the eventually determined death counts. With the help of other organizations, the WHO has vastly improved its abilities to determine accurate statistics for conflict and post-conflict societies.

After Dr. Murray finished his presentation of the paper and more up-to-date research on the connections between armed conflict and public health, Dr. Scott Barrett from Johns Hopkins’ SAIS contributed to the event as a discussant. He stressed the fact that the Center for Disease Control has not considered conflict resolution as one of their main objectives, but should work to improve collaboration among organizations concerned with disease from varying perspectives. Exploring data from previous disease eradication efforts, Dr. Barrett concludes that these efforts are highly ineffective in conflict zones from case studies of polio in Somalia, Botswana and Nigeria. If we properly establish the root cause of a conflict through intergovernmental collaboration, we can produce analyses that lead to preventitive measures for the future.

Location and Sponsor: U.S. Institute of Peace
Date: April 20, 2007
Time: 2:00 – 3:00 pm
Approximate Number of Attendees: 25
Intern Attending: Elysa Severinghaus

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