Countries engaging in conflict can lead to public health crises, experts say.
During the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, numerous accounts of tragedies have surfaced, detailing harm, incapacitation, property damage, and fatalities.
Experts argue that wars are more than just diplomatic crises; they represent significant public health issues with potential for lasting impacts.
Both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as individuals in other regions of conflict, might face shortages of essential resources like food and water and experience intense psychological stress. Displacement further elevates health risks for those who have to leave their homes.
Furthermore, the trauma and emotional repercussions of these conflicts are not exclusive to those in the affected regions but can also impact individuals worldwide.
In virtually every recent conflict, a deeply concerning trend is that noncombatant civilians often suffer the most, whether in traditional warfare or through acts of terrorism,” said Dr. Barry Levy, a physician and adjunct professor at Tufts University School of Medicine who researches the public health effects of war and terrorism, in a conversation with ABC News.
Civilians often find themselves trapped in the crossfire, affected not just by the immediate impact of explosive devices, but also by lingering health repercussions that can persist even once the conflict has ceased,” he added.
Lack of access to food, water
People residing in conflict-affected regions often face challenges accessing essentials like food, potable water, and warmth.
Israel announced a “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip, restricting the supply of food and water while also disrupting power to the region.
Levy mentioned that when civilian infrastructure is targeted and demolished, it hinders individuals from seeking food and deprives them of shelter and sanitation.
Such circumstances elevate the potential for malnutrition, especially in infants and young children, possibly resulting in developmental issues and cognitive deficits.
Stress beyond the war zone
Studies indicate that individuals residing in conflict areas face a heightened risk of various mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others.
Yet, the stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD aren’t limited to those directly affected; they can also touch family and friends of those in war zones and even the broader community.
Dr. Jack Tsai, a professor and regional dean at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio, elaborated that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, a diagnostic reference by the American Psychiatric Association, recognizes PTSD not just as a condition experienced firsthand but also one that can result from witnessing trauma.
“So, individuals can develop PTSD simply by witnessing distressing events. With today’s ubiquity of social media, the conflicts in the Middle East, for instance, are broadcasting visuals that weren’t previously accessible to the general public,” he observed.
“This exposure, I believe, amplifies the risk of PTSD, not just for those directly affected in the region, but also for many globally who are simply witnessing the unfolding events through their screens.”
Health risks of displacement
Numerous Israelis and Palestinians have found themselves compelled to relocate to other cities or even cross borders, an experience that can significantly impact mental health. “This forced movement can severely disrupt their daily mental well-being,” remarked Tsai. “These displaced individuals must adjust to unfamiliar settings, new faces, and different cultures. Such adaptations can be challenging, affecting both their mental and physical health in myriad ways.”
Additionally, those who are displaced involuntarily are more susceptible to contagious diseases, including COVID-19 and measles, heightening the possibility of outbreaks.
In the wake of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, health specialists voiced concerns about the propagation of COVID, especially given Ukraine’s previously low vaccination coverage before the conflict.
Infectious diseases, particularly respiratory ones, become a significant concern during conflicts due to the crowding of people,” Levy pointed out. “Envision individuals packed into shelters, refugee camps, or similar locales.”
Levy further emphasized another concerning issue: the potential proliferation of diarrheal illnesses like cholera, often resulting from an insufficient supply of clean water.