Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

Dr Mohammed Jawad wants to change the way we think about war and its effects on public health. Mohammed is a PhD candidate at the Public Health Policy and Evaluation Unit, Imperial College London, and has been chosen to deliver the Charles Darwin Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival. Alan Barker met him to discuss his work.

Mohammed will present his research at this year's Festival

War is bad for your health. Isn’t that obvious?

Particularly if it kills you, yes. But actually, war causes far more non-violent deaths than violent ones. And a lot of the information about these longer-term effects is hidden. So I think we’re not really analysing the effects of war on health in the way we should. I’m trying to bring this to the forefront of the research agenda.

What kinds of challenges do you face in doing that?

We currently have 51 or 52 countries at war, with about 3.5 billion people living in counties affected by war – that’s about half the world’s population. But the nature of war has changed over the past decade or so. We’re seeing more protracted conflicts, more localised wars, and more clandestine wars, in which special forces and different kinds of weapons are being used. Think of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994; or Iraq in 2003, when US tanks and fighters were bombing government targets and causing civilian casualties; a lot less of this style of war is being seen today. We’re seeing more international interference disguised as civil war; such is the case in Syria. These very different kinds of conflict create very different legacies for societies, especially when it comes to health. Understanding and modelling these differences is what I’m seeking to do.

How are you doing that?

We’re in the age of big data. I have health data on 25 different conditions – including cancers, infectious diseases, heart disease, and so on – organised by country, sex and age group, for every year, from 1990 to the present.

Image of war-torn cityWe currently have 51 or 52 countries at war, affecting about 3.5 billion people

So, a country is your unit of measurement?

Yes, countries both at peace and at war. We can look at what happens to public health when a country has five or ten years of peace, then goes into conflict, and then comes out of it again… We can analyse how public health changes over time, and then take averages to create a predictive model.

How much can you rely on the data you’re using?

That’s a good question. The first casualty of war is truth, of course. Most governments collect some form of health data, nationally or regionally, but this often stops when a conflict occurs. Humanitarian organisations can supply health data to plug some of those holes. Also, a lot of information about whether wars are taking place comes from news reports – maybe as much as 80% - so we rely massively on journalists. My dataset almost certainly underestimates the number of wars going on.

How did you become interested in this work?

I’m a public heath doctor. I’m interested in improving health globally, particularly in developing countries. And I’m originally from Iraq, which has had 42 years of war in the last 50 years. Conflict is such an important topic now - people are beginning to point out that big political decisions are affecting people’s health adversely, and we can finally quantify that.

How would you like to see this research being used?

I’d love to say that this will prevent all wars from happening! Realistically, I think this work can help to guide humanitarian aid. In Syria, for instance, agencies came in with a sort of sub-Saharan model of aid, thinking people would be starving and living in refugee camps. But actually, Syria was a middle-income country; when conflict broke out, people tended to move to the big cities. And starvation wasn’t the main problem among Syrians, so the NGOs were seriously misallocating their resources, and that was a big deal. My model might help to prioritize aid in new conflicts.  Ideally, I’d love to use this work for advocacy purposes as well. NGOs would be very interested to know that war is causing all these excess deaths and health problems – and that those effects can be measured.

Mohammed Jawad delivers Unwell in Unrest at the British Science Festival on Wednesday 11 September at 11:00. Read more about his lecture and book tickets here.