Indirect child casualties of conflict far outnumber direct combatant deaths in Africa

gettyimages sick baby KYANGWALI, UGANDA - APRIL 06: A baby girl from Uganda suffering with cholera lies in a ward in the Kasonga Cholera Treatment Unit in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement on April 6, 2018 in Kyangwali, Uganda. According to the UNHCR almost 70,000 people have arrived in Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo since the beginning of 2018 as they escape violence in the Ituri province. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

More children die from the indirect impact of armed conflict in Africa than those killed in the crossfire and on the battlefields, according to a new study by Stanford researchers. 

The study is the first comprehensive analysis of the large and lingering effects of armed conflicts — civil wars, rebellions and interstate conflicts — on the health of noncombatants.

The numbers are sobering: 3.1 to 3.5 million infants born within 30 miles of armed conflict died from indirect consequences of battle zones between 1995 and 2005. That number jumps to 5 million deaths of children under 5 in those same conflict zones.

“The indirect effects on children are so much greater than the direct deaths from conflict,” said Stanford Health Policy's Eran Bendavid, senior author of the study published today in The Lancet.

The authors also found evidence of increased mortality risk from armed conflict as far as 60 miles away and for eight years after conflicts. Being born in the same year as a nearby armed conflict is riskiest for young infants, the authors found, with the lingering effects raising the risk of death for infants by over 30 percent.

On the entire continent, the authors wrote, the number of infant deaths related to conflict from 1995 to 2015 were more than three times the number of direct deaths from armed conflict. Further, they demonstrated a strong and stable increase of 7.7 percent in the risk of dying before age 1 among babies born within 30 miles of an armed conflict.

The authors recognize it is not surprising that African children are vulnerable to nearby armed conflict. But they show that this burden is substantially higher than previously indicated. 

“We wanted to understands the effects of war and conflict, and discovered that this was surprisingly poorly understood,” said Bendavid, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford Medicine.  “The most authoritative source, the Global Burden of Disease, only counts the direct deaths from conflict, and those estimates suggest that conflicts are a minuscule cause of death.”

Paul Wise, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, has long argued that lack of health care, vaccines, food, water and shelter kills more civilians than combatants from bombs and bullets. 

This study has now put data behind the theory when it comes to children.

“We hope to redefine what conflict means for civilian populations by showing how enduring and how far-reaching the destructive effects of conflict have on child health,” said Bendavid, an infectious disease physician whose co-authors include Marshall Burke, PhD, an assistant professor of earth systems science and fellow at the Center on Food Security and the Environment.

“Lack of access to key health services or to adequate nutrition are the standard explanations for stubbornly high infant mortality rates in parts of Africa,” said Burke. “But our data suggest that conflict can itself be a key driver of these outcomes, affecting health services and nutritional outcomes hundreds of kilometers away and for nearly a decade after the conflict event”. 

The results suggest efforts to reduce conflict could lead to large health benefits for children.

The Data

The authors matched data on 15,441 armed-conflict events with data on 1.99 million births and subsequent child survival across 35 African countries. Their primary conflict data came from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program Georeferenced Events Dataset, which includes detailed information about the time, location, type and intensity of conflict events from 1946 to 2016. 

The researchers also used all available data from the Demographic and Health Surveys conducted in 35 African countries from 1995 to 2015 as the primary data sources on child mortality in their analysis.

The data, they said, shows that the indirect toll of armed conflict among children is three-to-five times greater than the estimated number of direct casualties in conflict. The indirect toll is likely even higher when considering the effects on women and other vulnerable populations.

Zachary Wagner, a health economist at RAND Corporation and first author of the study, said he knows few are surprised that conflict is bad for child health.

“However, this work shows that the relationship between conflict and child mortality is stronger than previously thought and children in conflict zones remain at risk for many years after the conflict ends.” 

He notes that nearly 7 percent of child deaths in Africa are related to conflict and reiterated the grim fact that child deaths greatly outnumber direct combatant deaths.

“We hope our findings lead to enhanced efforts to reach children in conflict zones with humanitarian interventions,” Wagner said. “But we need more research that studies the reasons for why children in conflict zones have worse outcomes in order to effectively intervene.” 

Another author, Sam Heft-Neal, PhD, is a research fellow at the Center for Food Security and the Environment and in the Department of Earth Systems Science. He, Burke and Bendavid have been working together to identify the impacts of extreme climate events on infant mortality in Africa.