By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman
Children are our future. Our concern with their well-being is basic to our hopes. Every day on TV we see the devastating images of the trauma of war. The barbaric bombing of civilians and hospitals in Aleppo is a nightmare.
It is staggering to realize that nearly 50 million children worldwide have migrated across borders or have been forcibly displaced by conflicts. Children account for about half of all refugees. How will their trauma affect their future?
The immediate need is for humanitarian help of food, shelter and medicines. Wartime stress in children can lead to long-term mental health problems. One study estimates that one out of three children could develop some form of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) psychological symptoms during their lifetime. Neurologically, toxic stress can lead to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol in the brain. This impacts the brain’s hippocampus and can lead to children having difficulties with learning, emotional self-control and short-term memory.
Few studies have looked at the long-term consequences of traumatic experiences. Some children are resilient and able to cope with stress. This ability to cope with stress includes the capacity to recognize and avoid danger, the use of adults for caretaking activities, the capacity to manage anxiety and, importantly, devotion to a cause and finding meaning in the experience. An example of this coping comes from Sarajevo, where thousands of children endured almost four years of siege by Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s. Many children helped and took their helping role very seriously. They stood in line for water and bread, collected firewood, and took care of their siblings, mothers and other relatives. They found meaning in their activities.
Shocking scenes: Many people believe the world is a mess, with wars, famine, poverty and children dying from hunger and disease. This view, reinforced with shocking scenes on TV, results in a feeling of helplessness and undermines the decision of whether to help many humanitarian organizations.
Giving up would be totally wrong! In fact, the last 20 years has seen a remarkable historic improvement in the condition of the world’s people. Worldwide, a child born in 1955 had an average life expectancy of only 48 years. By 2015 it had increased to 72 years. There is variation in average life expectancy. In France, it is 82 years, in the U.S., it is 79 years. In the poorest countries, average life expectancy has also increased—in Angola, it is 53 years and in Kenya, 62 years. In Cuba, life expectancy is 80 years, showing that serious progress can be made in poor countries.
The number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by half in recent decades. As recently as 1981, 44 percent of the world’s population was extremely poor. Currently, less than 10 percent are poor. Over the 20 years from 1993 to 2013, the number of poor people fell by over 1 billion, from about 1 in 3 to 1 in 10.
The likelihood of a child dying before age 5 has been nearly cut in half over the last two decades. That means 6 million lives a year are saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicines and diarrhea treatment (Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, Sept. 22, 2016).
Practical work: We should support the many organizations that are doing the practical work to keep this important trend going, including UNICEF, WHO, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders (especially), Save the Children, and the U.N. Refugee Agency.
The job is not finished. There are still 150 million child laborers in the world working on the cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire, selling flowers in Colombia, sewing footballs in Pakistan, working in mica mines and at brick kilns in India. Still, about 15 million girls under 18 are forced to marry each year. Still, 1,600 children die each day mostly from preventable or treatable diseases.
Another major need is education, jobs and opportunity for young people. Many of the 1.5 billion children in today’s world who are 15 or younger have smart phones or watch TV. They know how the rest of the world is living. They know what other people have that they don’t. This drives aspiration, and if these aspirations are not met, the result will not be good.
–-Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the United Nations, and Dr. Reba Goodman, member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.