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Wars and uprisings in the Middle East have wiped five years off local life expectancy due to high casualties and drops in healthcare standards, a study warns.

The result of the ongoing war in Syria and intermitted, violent political uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia mean more people die in violence than before the Arab Spring, and health systems are on the brink of collapse, says the study, published yesterday in The Lancet.

In 2010, male life expectancy in Syria, for example, was around 75 years, but this had dropped to 69 years by 2013, the study says. In the same time frame, life expectancy for Syrian women fell from about 80 years to about 75 years, the researchers found.

“The fact that this is happening in several countries indicates there is an immediate need to invest in health care systems”, says lead author Ali Mokdad, a health researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Seattle in the United States. “Recent conflicts have shattered the basic infrastructure in a number of countries.”

The conflicts and resulting refugee crisis has also led to a spike in child deaths, the study found, with Syria experienced a 10 per cent increase in infant mortality between 2010 and 2013, compared to an annual drop of 6 per cent in the years before that. This means Syria has a worse child mortality rate than most countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Conflicts lead to internal displacement of large numbers of individuals and families, which increases the burden of diseases and injuries, and, consequently, leads to more violence.”

Riyadh Lafta, Mustansiriya Medical School

The destruction of hospitals and general deterioration of the health systems in many Middle Eastern and North African countries is particularly dire since the region is also experiencing an increase in non-communicable diseases, the authors say. Incidences of high blood pressure, for example, have nearly doubled since 1990, while obesity is up by 30 per cent, the research showed.

The paper recommends urgent spending on healthcare in the region to counter the devastating effect of failing infrastructure. “Populations suffer health problems during, and after, conflicts because of damage to the health-supporting infrastructure, safe food and water, sanitation, and medical care and public health services,” Riyadh Lafta, a researcher at Mustansiriya Medical School in Baghdad, Iraq, wrote in a Lancet comment.

Lafta said that conflicts become a vicious circle for healthcare, which can only be broken by peace. “Conflicts lead to internal displacement of large numbers of individuals and families, which increases the burden of diseases and injuries, and, consequently, leads to more violence,” he said.