Commentary

Armed conflict disproportionately affects children


 

I was asked recently about the trauma of 9/11 by a teen patient who was too young to remember the terrorist attacks. I was surprised that even today I become teary eyed thinking about it. My son was in his first week of college at Georgetown, and in the early confusion about what was going on I was panicked at reports of bombings in Washington. Fortunately, for me and my family at least, none of us were physically harmed. But the mental trauma still is with us. It was a momentary panic for me, but it’s not so fleeting for many families around the world today.

Syrian refugee children at displaced persons camp in Atmeh, Syria Joel Carillet/iStock Unreleased

I can’t imagine what it is like today to be a parent in an armed conflict zone, or even in an area with very high levels of criminal violence. At a meeting of the International Society for Social Pediatrics (ISSOP), I learned that an estimated 1.5 billion residents of Earth, or about one in five inhabitants, lived in war zones or in areas of tremendous violence, according to the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report. And I learned that children are disproportionately affected – physically, mentally, and developmentally – from Stella Tsitoura, MD, of the Network for Children’s Rights, Athens, and others at the ISSOP meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, where pediatricians from around the world gathered in Oct. 2019 to consider what we as a profession should be doing in the context of armed conflict’s impact on so many children. The meeting was held in the Middle East because it is an especially hot conflict area, but children in South Asia, central Africa, South America, Central America, even rough inner-city areas in the United States are also affected.

Child soldiers in some parts of the world particularly are affected, sometimes being forced to commit violence on neighbors and kin. One country that I worked in years ago, Yemen, is a horrifying example of the complex impact of war on children and families. In 2017, over 2,100 children had been recruited as soldiers during the 3-year conflict in Yemen, a UNICEF representative reported. The death toll in Yemen was over 17,500 by Nov. 2018, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Samuel Perlo-Freeman, PhD, an expert on the economics of arms trade, noted at the ISSOP meeting that two-thirds of civilian casualties in Yemen are caused by Coalition air strikes, whose members include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and United Arab Emirates. He also said rebel groups in Yemen and elsewhere acquire their arms by capture, by smuggling, or through the aid of foreign backers. Six countries – the United States, Russia, and several western European countries – account for the majority of war tools used in armed conflict zones. In June 2019, courts in Great Britain ruled that British arms sales to the parties involved in Yemen were illegal without an assessment as to whether any violation of internal humanitarian law had taken place.

Many of us feel impotent when facing the magnitude of this problem, and the lives of despair that affected children lead are sometimes too heart breaking to dwell on. ISSOP, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the International Pediatric Association (IPA) are teaching us differently: Standing up for the human rights of children living in areas of conflict or refugees from those areas is our responsibility, both as individuals and as members of our pediatric associations. At a basic level we need to witness – we need to share what we see with our patients who have immigrated legally or illegally in our practices, our hospitals, and our communities. It’s important to be knowledgeable of current standards of clinical care outlined by both ISSOP and the AAP to ensure our patients affected by conflict and violence get appropriate treatment.

Dr. Francis Rushton Jr. practiced pediatrics in Beaufort, S.C., for 32 years and currently is the medical director of S.C. Quality through Technology and Innovation in Pediatrics (QTIP), funded by the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Francis E. Rushton Jr.

Some of the most lasting health impacts for children in conflict are their mental health needs; the World Health Organization prevalence estimates of mental disorders in conflict settings is 22%, according to a 2019 report in the Lancet (2019 Jun;394[10194]:240-8). Not only do mental health conditions last throughout a lifetime, the impact of war can affect generations through epigenetic forces.

Arms manufacturers should be held accountable as the courts are doing in Great Britain. Too often American-made armaments are falling into the wrong hands. More can be done to limit the sale of weapons that go into conflict zones. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, and biologic weapons are banned by international agreement; shouldn’t we do the same with nuclear weapons?

Some pediatric health care facilities are impacted by the needs of traumatized children more than others. Countries at the front line of conflict – like Lebanon, Jordon, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Mexico – should be supported in their efforts on behalf of child refugees. We need to share the burden and support entities such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and the Red Cross/Crescent as they present themselves in crisis zones. We recognize that the fundamental human rights of children are being ignored by warring parties. We should join with the global community to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 16, which asks the world community to make real progress in promoting peace and justice by 2030. Pediatricians may not be experts in armed conflict, but we are experts in what warfare does to the health and well-being of young children. It’s time to speak out and act.

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