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Child Science and Natural Disasters

The typhoons, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters that are now wreaking havoc all over the world are said to be related to global warming. The Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of January 1995, the later earthquake in Niigata prefecture, and the devastating earthquake that struck Szechwan province in China this May are catastrophes that confront us with a number of problems to need to be resolved.

The move to address the problems of natural disasters from the perspective of science began in the magazine Nature in 2005, a lively discussion has ensued. In 2006, Nakayama Foundation for Human Science, with which I am associated, announced a grant for projects on the theme "The Human Science of Natural Disasters." The human sciences stress interdisciplinarity, trans-disciplinary studies and areas that unite the humanities and sciences. In this sense, Child Science is one of the human sciences.

When natural disasters strike, they have a strong effect on the lives of children, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Nevertheless, there seems to be almost no attempt to understand natural disasters from the perspectives of Child Science. We even lack adequate statistics on the disorders of children due to natural disasters. Of course, the unforeseen nature of these disasters may make it impossible to obtain data, but in the case of global warming, related disasters are likely to occur repeatedly. It then becomes imperative to apply the perspective of Child Science in order to save children's lives. And considering the likelihood of future occurrences, we should clearly plan ways to gather the necessary statistics.

Upon writing this article, I began by looking up information on the relation between natural disasters and children from the viewpoint of Child Science, but as expected, found very little data on the subject. Here, I would like to offer two observations that occurred to me as I thought about this in connection with Child Science.

In a word, "children" covers a range from infants to young people in puberty. For infants, getting proper nutrition becomes a problem when disasters strike. Saving mothers and ensuring that they can breastfeed their babies is the best solution, but stress and anxiety can impede the production of breast milk. Relying on baby formula means that distribution channels must be up and working, and also requires clean water and containers. In many respects, mothers need emotional support to keep their breast milk flowing. Everything begins with providing gentle mental and emotional support to mothers--a point that should be kept by everyone involved. I am glad to see that recently there are NPOs that promote mother's milk and have printed pamphlets and other information for use in time of disasters.

Infants and school children suffer psychological problems from the stress experienced during disasters. This posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often develops into mental disorders and prompt psychological care becomes extremely important. Recently, the concept of resilience has been discussed in conjunction with PTSD and refers to the capacity to become well and recover from PTSD and other disaster-related stress. This ability to bounce back is different from the concept of resistance. When children with little resilience are subjected to strong stress, this can cause abnormalities in the brain structure and neuronal networks and lead to mental disorders. Of course, there are individual disparities in resilience which may be the reciprocal effect of both genetic and environmental factors.

What can we do to increase children's resilience? Since it is unrealistic to have them experience natural disasters, we have to think of drills, practice and other such methods. After seeing the realistic television broadcasts of the earthquake in Szechwan, China, it occurred to me that one way would be to edit these images for use as educational materials in schools. Resilience is thought to be the capacity of the brain to produce something like the immunity that results from a vaccination. In this sense, these images would function like a vaccine. Insofar as we cannot heighten resilience through direct experience, isn't the only other way to stimulate the brain to some extent through visual images?

Today we clearly need to think about how the insights and knowledge of Child Science can help children in natural disasters. We welcome the views of CRN website users on this subject. Please let us hear what you think.

Sources: "Nutrition for Infants in Natural Disasters," IFE Core Group "On Support for Infants during Crises (Natural Disasters)," Breastfeeding Support Network of Japan (BSN Japan) seminar material

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