For the children who are struggling to survive the Middle East’s ongoing wars, the impacts could be life-changing. According to a new study, the trauma will likely continue to affect them decades from now, haunting the bodies, minds, and families of what scientists call a “lost generation.”
In a wide-ranging analysis of the public-health impacts of turmoil in the Middle East, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) see a mass epidemic unfolding through years of systemic social deprivation, displacement, and cycles of violence and illness.
The study, covering the period from 1990 to 2015, shows that the populations of the Middle East and North Africa have suffered drastic increases in chronic illness and death from preventable diseases, along with psychological instability. Rates of diabetes and lung cancer have more than doubled. Amid conflict and poverty, once-stable communities have sunk into undernourishment and long-term food insecurity, along with severe mental distress, producing a generation of neglected children. Three countries in the region—Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—“are among the 10 countries with the highest child mortality in the world,” which is fueled by preventable health problems such as lower-respiratory infections and diarrhea-related illness.
The findings seem even more dire against the backdrop of a general trend of major public-health improvements seen across the Global South in recent decades, especially in child mortality and infectious diseases. “Compared with other parts of the world, we see that all the gains that have been achieved have been lost right now,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of global health at the University of Washington and co-author of the IMHE study.
Throughout the last quarter-century, regional social volatility has made everyday life more dangerous. Violent incidents and law-enforcement interventions have soared by 850 percent. Extreme rates of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia have “contributed to nearly 11 million years lived in less than ideal health.” Young people often experience the most devastating long-term impacts, Mokdad warns: “Imagine a generation in Syria, Yemen, Libya, or Iraq that has been broken up during the war, and they see this [impact] from age of 2 or 3 until they are now in their early 20s.”
Spending much of their lives “seeing people being killed… You can imagine how much trauma this is putting on the population.” Compared with other parts of the world, rates of social violence have exploded overall, including collective warfare and interpersonal assault and sexual assault. By 2015, suicides doubled to nearly 30,000 annually, and another 35,000 people in the region were killed by interpersonal violence. Regionally, the past quarter-century has seen a doubling in suicides, while homicide rose by 150 percent.
The care systems of the region
have broken down on multiple levels, and preventive care, including screening for mental illness or managing chronic conditions, has been shattered. Outside of conflict zones, too, waves of refugees have engulfed regional neighbors, so humanitarian and medical facilities of even peaceful parts of Jordan and Lebanon are overstressed. Meanwhile, people become so overwhelmed they neglect their own health and become more prone to self-harming behaviors.