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Iraq war stunts children′s growth

Posted on 29/03/2010

iraqi children. Image rferl.org

Iraqi children born in areas affected by high levels of violence are shorter in height than children born in less violent areas according to a study at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The level of violence has varied across the provinces and districts, with the south and centre of Iraq being most affected and it is in these areas that estimates show children are on average 0.8cm shorter than their peers growing up elsewhere in the country.

The research, which uses data from three independent surveys conducted before and after 2003 by the central statistics office of Iraq, exploits the different intensities of the conflict across areas and the age of exposure to the war among children in order to estimate the effect of the war on their health.

The study shows that the wave of violence and turmoil in Iraq has lead to the deterioration of linear growth of young children though not necessarily affecting weight. This provides evidence that the problem is not the quantity but the quality of food and shows that stunting is a serious problem among children in Iraq. It highlights that the negative growth impact is more pronounced during the first year of life, but suggests that it might have started in the uterus via the deterioration of the health of the mother.

“At first sight, it is easier to see if a child is malnourished by looking at his or her weight, which is often synonymous with hunger. Low height however, which relates more to protein intake, is not as easy to identify just by looking at a child,” says Gabriela Guerrero-Serdán from the Department of Economics at Royal Holloway.

“Unlike weight, which can be gained at any period of life by eating more food, we cannot necessarily grow more in height after our period of growth has passed. Extensive research has shown if children do not reach their potential growth and are stunted after their second birthday, they are less likely to catch up later. Early life development and growth are connected and important because children who are well nourished are more likely to be healthy, productive and able to learn in the future,” she added.

Evidence from the study is being presented at this year’s Royal Economic Society annual conference at the University of Sussex on March 29 – 31 and highlights the need for more research into links between psychological and physiological aspects of health of pregnant women in conflict-affected countries.

Gabriela said, “The study shows that the conflict and violence in Iraq has had considerable costs, one of them being the deterioration of the health of children, which affects human capital accumulation and subsequently the country’s future. Since malnutrition reflects the environment in which a child lives there is not a single solution, but access to electricity, safe water and sanitation are essential. In addition, it would be important to see if the current food distribution program in Iraq is providing the necessary quantity and quality of food for young children and pregnant women.“


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