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Violence epidemiology and measuring the real death toll of the Iraq War

"Iraq Girl: Living at peace with the mathematical patterns you don't understand" Flickr: Artwork by Surian Soosay

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we are talking with Riyadh Lafta, a physician and researcher based at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, Iraq, one of the oldest universities in the world, having been established around 1230 A.D.

Dr. Riyadh Lafta

Dr. Riyadh Lafta

Lafta is an epidemiologist who focuses on violence and was one of the leading public health researchers who challenged the official U.S. government claims of low civilian casualties from the 2003 Iraq War. Lafta and his colleagues did several surveys published in The Lancet that showed, to be brief, that the U.S. invasion and ensuing occupation has caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Further, they hope to draw attention to the ongoing legacy of war, the persistent problems caused by destroyed or disrupted basic services such as for health care, water and shelter, the many orphaned children or widowed mothers and other disruptions.

In conversation with Humanosphere’s Tom Paulson, we learn from Lafta about how difficult and dangerous it was for Lafta and his colleagues to do what many may regard as simple book-keeping tasks – and why it is important that we look at the consequences of war or violence through an epidemiological lens. Lafta was in Seattle to speak at the University of Washington.

Some may remember that in the early years of the Iraq War, beginning with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and due to continued fighting during the occupation for many years later, there was a raging debate about how many civilians had been killed. The Bush administration originally contended that the number of civilians killed as ‘collateral damage’ numbered below 5,000 people. Lafta and his colleagues, including other population health researchers such as Les Roberts, now at Columbia University, and Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins, showed that initial number was more like 100,000 people. With the occupation and ongoing fighting there, others have done their own Iraq mortality studies which range from a low of 150,000 to more than a million.

As usual, before our main chat, Tom and I highlight some of the stories we had this week in Humanosphere including a report that Doctors Without Border (MSF) refused a donation from vaccine maker Pfizer because the activists felt it was merely a gesture aimed at getting the group to stop clamoring for drug price reductions in general. As this NYTimes’ op-ed shows, it’s not just MSF who believes the rapidly increasing costs of drugs and vaccines is cause for concern. We also note the latest battle in the fight against obesity aimed at taxing soda drinks and other sweets and the decision by the West African nation Gambia to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, following Burundi and South Africa.

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or