Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Conflict and health

The health costs of war: can they be measured? Lessons from El Salvador

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 15 July 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:169
  1. Antonio Ugalde, professor (,
  2. Ernesto Selva-Sutter, directorb,
  3. Carolina Castillo, professorb,
  4. Carolina Paz, professorb,
  5. Sergio Cañas, professorb
  1. a Department of Sociology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712-1088, USA
  2. b Department of Public Health, Universidad Centroamericana José Siméon Cañas, San Salvador, El Salvador
  1. Correspondence to: A Ugalde

    This is the second of four articles

    Studies assessing the health impact of armed conflicts have documented the disruption of referrals, immunisation programmes, supplies, and monitoring and surveillance and increased dependence on foreign personnel and funding, 1 2 but measurements have typically focused on deaths, disabilities, infant mortality, and communicable diseases, and occasionally on facilities destroyed.24 The case of El Salvador shows that, useful as this quantitative information is, it is insufficient to assess the effects of war on health and to provide guidelines for rehabilitation of health services. Specifically, there are three key areas of underassessment in evaluating the health costs of war: psychosocial behaviours, environmental destruction, and disruption to policy making.

    Summary points

    Traditional indicators (infant mortality, maternal mortality, malnutrition, rates of communicable diseases) are insufficient to measure the impact of war: selective primary care improves these indicators even when the general health status of the population deteriorates,

    Policy making is affected during periods of political violence: by conflicting approaches by different agencies, by parallel health systems organised during the war, and by conflicts between international funding agencies and national policy makers; the impact of war on policy making has not been adequately assessed

    Agencies focusing on post-conflict rehabilitation tend to overlook effects of war that are less visible and more difficult to assess


    The 1980–92 civil war in El Salvador was the culmination of decades of militarisation, intense political violence, and repression which produced thousands of victims.57 Violations of international codes of war conduct, mostly by the government's armed forces, routinely took place during the war. Horrifying descriptions of massacres of children, women, and elderly people; killings of wounded and sick in hospital wards; assassinations of civilians; and executions of prisoners have been reported by survivors. Estimates of war related casualties and physical …

    View Full Text

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription