Peace through health program building bridges in Middle East

A new paper evaluating the outcomes of a world-first maternal and child health program has found a Canadian ‘peace-through-health’ initiative a useful means for bridging conflict in the Middle East.

Dr Alexandra Martiniuk, Senior Research Fellow with The George Institute for Global Health, University of Sydney and Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, said health professionals have a distinct role to play in preventing conflict.

“Health initiatives are thought to be one of the more successful tracks towards peace-building,” Dr Martiniuk said, citing temporary ceasefires organised by UNICEF to vaccinate children during El Salvador’s civil war as supporting moves toward a permanent ceasefire.

“People experience fear subjectively. Health is a human security issue, recognised by the United Nations Development Program - as health professionals, we can do more than treat the effects of conflict.”

The first program, involving six medical students - two Israelis, two Palestinians and two Canadians - was developed and hosted in 2003 by Dr Martiniuk, her colleague Dr Shannon Wires, a graduate of the University of Toronto Medical School and now practicing paediatrician, and the Canada International Scientific Exchange Programme (CISEPO) in Toronto, as conflict increased under the second intifada.

“One of the criticisms of peace-through-health initiatives is that they are too-focused on similarities, when that may not be the case where access to scientific knowledge and resources is asymmetric,” Dr Martiniuk said.

“Our study found the keys to the ongoing success of peace-through-health programs are the acknowledgment of differences and emphasis on the primacy of health and medicine.”

“This extends previous research knowledge, which has shown that important features underlying strong peace-through-health programmes include having a project that is based on a health problem that is important to all participants, and that the project provides opportunities for professional advancement.

“While it’s difficult to quantify, the fact that five of the six participants in the 2003 program went on to paediatric residencies is an indicator that practical programs do positively impact the careers of participants.”

Interviews, focus groups and written journals were used to generate a better understanding of peace-through-health. Participants were interviewed by Martiniuk and Wires in the first 24 hours of the month-long program, as well as during the last two days, and five years after they returned home.

“Participants were tired of talking about peace, they expressed their desire to move on and work together on their shared identity as medical students,” Dr Martiniuk said.

One participant is quoted in the new paper as saying:

We are not peace builders that are interested in medicine, we are future doctors that are interested in peace building, and the emphasis should be there . . . health is the equalizer, the things that bring people together, and then everything else came out naturally.

Since 2004, CISEPO has adapted the summer elective model to offer programs for Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Canadian medical, and other health professional, students.

The paper, Reflections on peace-through health: the first Canadian, Israeli, and Palestinian maternal and child health programme for medical students was published today in the Taylor & Francis journal, Medicine, Conflict and Survival. Medicine, Conflict and Survival is a designated journal of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its UK affiliate, MEDACT.