Children whose fathers physically abuse their mothers are at higher risk for acute respiratory infection and diarrhea, the two leading causes of death for young children worldwide.
In an analysis of a population survey of Bangladesh, researcher Jay Silverman reports, "Those [men] who reported violence against their wives, the children of those women were far more likely to have recently reported acute respiratory infections and diarrhea… 37 to 65 percent more likely than those in those families where there was not such abuse."
In their research, Silverman and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health say they were careful to account for other factors that contribute to disease, such as sanitation, education, and poverty.
Silverman says the correlation between abuse and illness has several possible explanations. "Directly, men who are more abusive to their wives are also more likely to be physically and sexually abusive towards their children. So obviously that abuse would have a tremendous direct health impact."
Indirectly, he says, "the resulting trauma and anxiety that we see among children in such families often leads to suppression of the immune system over time."
A common problem
This finding is particularly alarming, according to Silverman, considering how common partner abuse is in Bangladesh. If anything, he adds, this study may underestimate the prevalence, and therefore the impact, of domestic violence.
"We saw over 40 percent of those folks reporting that they had been abusive physically or sexually to their wives in the past year. We know from other studies that actually when we go to a lifetime we're looking at three-quarters of all men reporting physical or sexual violence against their wives at some point."
The implications for public health policy are clear, Silverman says. "We have to be considering gender-based violence against women, violence from husbands, as a true priority concern within our child survival programs."
Silverman's report is published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.