Thursday, April 29, 2010

UW conference to battle the ravages of war

UW conference to battle the ravages of war

Sponsors of a global health conference this weekend at the University of Washington hope to frame war as a grave but solvable public-health crisis.

By Andrew Doughman

Seattle Times staff reporter

Conference details

WHAT: Western Regional International Health Conference
WHEN: 9 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m.-

4:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: The Husky Union Building (HUB) on the University of Washington campus.

WHY: The UW Department of Global Health and Physicians for Social Responsibility are sponsoring the conference to address war as a public-health problem. They say approaching war in this way will promote peace.

COST: Student/Medical resident/unemployed: $75; nonstudent/professional: $125. Registration is online only:

When Evan Kanter adds up the costs of war, he doesn't only consider the cost of fighter jets and tanks, he also counts his patients at a veterans hospital in Seattle, where he works as a psychiatrist treating active-duty military personnel and veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For him, the costs of war include the health strain placed on these people when they redeployed, again and again, to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You know that, in a sense, they may never really be able to go home again," he said.

Watching people lose their jobs or lose their marriages because of PTSD is devastating.

Kanter will describe these long-term consequences of conflict at a global-health conference at the University of Washington Saturday and Sunday. The organizers hope to frame war as a grave but solvable public-health crisis.

They hope to put war in the same context as tobacco, which evolved in the public perception from habit to health hazard as a result of public-health campaigns in the 1960s.

More than 60 speakers — academics, journalists and doctors — will address how war affects those serving in the military, veterans, refugees, civilians and the environment at the eighth annual Western Regional International Health Conference.

The Department of Global Health at the UW — founded four years ago — and Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit environmental-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., are sponsoring the event.

This year, organizers expect about 700 students, faculty and community members to attend.

Organizers such as UW graduate student Rebecca Bartlein want those attending to challenge the ideas that war is inevitable.

"War is not just something that happens," she said. "We can impact those causes of war."

Government could cap its military spending and offer young people an array of nonviolent ways to serve their country, she suggested.

Bartlein said most people envision diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis when they think about global health. War is not what springs to mind.

But war ravages more than armies. It upends a society.

Civilians often can't access health care in a conflict zone. Essential services often shut down, making health problems worse.

Governments invest in weapons rather than health, education and the environment, Bartlein said.

But it's not only such indirect effects of war that make it a pressing health concern, conference organizers say. The direct effects of modern warfare are devastating, as well.

"One hundred years ago, 90 percent of the people killed by war were actually combatants, and today 90 percent of the people killed by war are civilians," Kanter said.

Bartlein, the UW graduate student, went abroad several years ago to work at a camp for Somali refugees in Ethiopia.

Her job was to help doctors at the camp deliver care to those who had fled conflict in Somalia.

"It just really hammered home," she said.

"I mean, here you have these camps filled with tens of thousands of refugees. The most cost-effective and efficient way to take care of their health needs is to prevent them from being displaced in the first place," Bartlein said.

"This is a really opportune time as the Seattle global-health community is defining itself and defining what its priorities are going to be," she added.

Seattle has its share of global-health heavyweights. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated millions to start the UW's global-health department, operates out of Seattle. So does PATH, which works in developing countries.

There are enough of these organizations in Seattle that a group called Washington Global Health Alliance formed two years ago to encourage the health organizations to work together.

"The Northwest seems to be a nexus for this kind of work and the development for this sort of strategy," Kanter said.

It's that network of academics, doctors and regional groups the event organizers want to reach.

They're hoping their war-as-health-problem message will last longer than the conference.

Andrew Doughman: 206-464-3195 or

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