Background: Armed conflicts affect more than one in 10 children globally. While there is a large literature on mental health, the effects of armed conflict on children's physical health and development are not well understood. This systematic review summarizes the current and past knowledge on the effects of armed conflict on child health and development.
Methods: A systematic review was performed with searches in major and regional databases for papers published 1 January 1945 to 25 April 2017. Included studies provided data on physical and/or developmental outcomes associated with armed conflict in children under 18 years. Data were extracted on health outcomes, displacement, social isolation, experience of violence, orphan status, and access to basic needs. The review is registered with PROSPERO: CRD42017036425.
Findings: Among 17,679 publications screened, 155 were eligible for inclusion. Nearly half of the 131 quantitative studies were case reports, chart or registry reviews, and one-third were cross-sectional studies. Additionally, 18 qualitative and 6 mixed-methods studies were included. The papers describe mortality, injuries, illnesses, environmental exposures, limitations in access to health care and education, and the experience of violence, including torture and sexual violence. Studies also described conflict-related social changes affecting child health. The geographical coverage of the literature is limited. Data on the effects of conflict on child development are scarce.
Interpretation: The available data document the pervasive effect of conflict as a form of violence against children and a negative social determinant of child health. There is an urgent need for research on the mechanisms by which conflict affects child health and development and the relationship between physical health, mental health, and social conditions. Particular priority should be given to studies on child development, the long term effects of exposure to conflict, and protective and mitigating factors against the harmful effects of armed conflict on children.