Monday, November 5, 2007

War and peace

War. What’s it good for?

That was the question during a Monday session on the health effects of war and the conclusion was resounding: War is bad for public health.

Public health professionals came together at the APHA Peace Caucus-organized session to discuss public health and war, focusing on landmines, nuclear weapons and the mental health problems of war veterans.

Former APHA president Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH, a public health consultant and adjunct professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Victor W. Sidel, MD, professor of social medicine at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, introduced the session. The two co-authored the book War and Public Health, which is now available at APHA’s PubMart in the Public Health Expo.

Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights and a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, spoke about the problems that remain nearly 10 years after she helped to pass the Ottawa Treaty, an agreement of 125 nations to ban landmines.

Fifteen thousand to 20,000 annual casualties due to landmines happen each year, she said, particularly in countries such as Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq, while hundreds of thousands of people who have survived landmine disasters lack proper physical and emotional treatment. She encouraged health professionals, who are often the first to see the direct damage, to alert policy-makers to the dangers of landmines in order to bring about a legislative freeze on their production.

Evan Kanter, MD, PhD, staff psychiatrist at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, discussed the high prevalence of mental health problems among Iraq war veterans. As the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq approaches 4,000, Kanter said, an expected 300,000 U.S. soldiers are expected to suffer psychiatric casualties. In 2006, the suicide rate in the U.S. Army was the highest rate ever measured in 26 years of record-keeping, he said. The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder estimated that 12 percent to 20 percent of returning veterans will suffer from the disorder, Kanter said, pointing to the immense medical and fiscal costs such statistics present. The disorder is particularly prevalent in soldiers who have multiple deployments.

Also discussed at the session was the APHA-sponsored exhibit "Unembedded — Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq," a national touring photojournalist exhibit that explores the impact of the Iraq war on the lives of Iraqi people. The exhibit will be open through Thursday, Nov. 8, at the AFL-CIO building, 815 16th St., N.W.

— A.B.

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