Arrested development: war and its impact on childhood health

Children of Palestine

This week news reports on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East got me thinking about the ways that warfare can impact human health. In particular, I began to wonder about the effects violence and political turmoil may have upon the children living in affected areas.

At the population level, childhood growth patterns are often seen as markers of overall health and periods of warfare have historically been associated with morbidity and delayed childhood growth. Studies in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia, Bosnia, Croatia and Iraq have shown deficits in immune function, cognition and growth in children who lived through recent conflicts. These effects are likely due to a combination of nutritional and psychological factors, as poor childhood health is linked to malnutrition, intense violence and the death of close family members.

Importantly, historical data shows that exposure to these conditions early in life has a marked impact on adult well being. Those who are underweight and of short stature in childhood are consistently more likely to suffer from health problems later in life.

These effects are not just limited to children who grew up during difficult wartime conditions. Exposure to environmental stressors during foetal development also plays a role. Analyses of children whose mothers were pregnant during the well-documented Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-45 show a predisposition to cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes in adulthood.

This evidence suggests that the impacts of war on civilian populations extend well beyond the most obvious repercussions of death, injury and psychological trauma and into more subtle aspects of biology. The current Gaza-Israel Conflict and Syrian Crisis will no doubt leave significant health impacts that will be felt for decades.

Image credit 

Erol, T. (2010). Children of Palestine [Image]. Retrieved from


Akresh, R., Lucchetti, L., & Thirumurthy, H. (2012). Wars and child health. Journal of Developmental Economics, 99(2), 330-340. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Kyle, U.G., & Pichard, C. (2006). The Dutch famine of 1944-1945: a pathophysiological model of long-term consequences of wasting disease. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 9(4), 388-394. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Minoiu, C., & Shemyayinka, O.N. (2014). Armed conflict, household victimisation and child health. Journal of Developmental Economics, 108, 237-255. Retrieved from JSTOR.


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