War and child growth: Iraq & WWII Germany


At the population level, childhood growth is often seen as a marker of health and the quality of the environment. When populations get taller in a few generations, this is likely due to some improvement in local conditions (better nutrition, less infection, cleaner water supply, etc.). Conversely, when linear growth declines, it is usually because local conditions (ecological, economic, political) have deteriorated. Two recent working papers illustrate how this pattern applies to war conditions.

Destruction of Dresden, 1945

The first study, conducted by Gabriela Guerrero Serdán on the ongoing war in Iraq, has received a good deal of media attention. Her conclusion was that children born in high-violence areas were shorter than those born in less violent areas.  On page 42 of her paper, she writes:

The analysis presented evidence that the war has affected the physical growth of children, where young cohorts born after the war in high-intensity conflict areas had lower height-for-age z-scores than children born in less violent areas. The effect on young cohorts is between -0.22 to -0.48 standard deviations, this is equivalent for a 6 month infant to be at least 0.8 cm shorter in height.

Thesecond paper by Mevlude Akbulut-Yuksel, Assistant Professor of Economics at Dalhousie University, is an historical analysis on how physical growth in Germany was affected by World War II. Her approach is a creative one, correlating adult stature with data on the volume of residential rubble per capita created by Allied bombing (excluding destruction of industrial buildings). Her conclusion was that children who were school-age in the hardest hit cities during the war were about one centimeter shorter in adulthood. This study is important because while there is a good deal of research linking war to growth deficits in childhood, it is difficult to find research on the  long-term effects of war on linear growth.

While the effects of war and forced displacement on child growth and nutrition have long been on the radar of humanitarian aid workers, it seems like there is a surge of interest in the topic on the part of epidemiologists, economists, and biological anthropologists. This is a welcome trend, one which will hopefully lead to greater collaboration, good science, and increased awareness of how war can impact civilian health. Such patterns appear to hold true regardless of the politics of and motives of the competing governments and militaries involved.

Note:  The above photo was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library (SLUB).

One thought on “War and child growth: Iraq & WWII Germany

  1. Pingback: Good Reads: State Building, Rebuilding, And Children — Conflict Health

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