Medical System Becomes Sickening

BAGHDAD — After three and a half years of occupation, Iraq’s medical system has sunk to levels lower than seen during the economic sanctions imposed after the first Gulf war in 1990.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said Iraqis are now extremely vulnerable in their health needs.

“Several wars and 13 years of economic sanctions left a heavy toll on the nutrition of the population, on the social structure, on the economy and on the health infrastructure and services,” according to a statement on the WHO website.

“This is well depicted in the morbidity and mortality rates of the population of Iraq, particularly of infants, children and mothers. The majority of Iraqis completely depend on the food Public Distribution System for their nutritional requirements.”

The health situation in Iraq has been in constant decline since the beginning of the U.S.-backed UN-imposed sanctions in 1990. Iraqi doctors were reputed to be the best in the Middle East during the 1980’s, but now they are short of medicines, medical equipment and funding to maintain the hospitals.

“We were angry with Saddam’s government for the poor health situation in the country, but now we wish we could get that back,” 55-year-old teacher Ahmed Zaydan from Sadr City in Baghdad told IPS. “There was not enough medical care, but there was something that one could live with and the private sector market was cheap. We were hoping for the change of regime to improve our lives, but the result is that we practically have no government healthcare.”

Saddam Hussein’s regime managed to keep basic medical services free of charge for most Iraqis until the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. There was a hospital in almost every town. Surgeries were carried out free of charge. Medicines were imported by the government and sold at affordable prices to those going to private clinics and hospitals.

The Ministry of Health is now controlled by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement under a political agreement between the ruling parties. The sectarian influence on the ministry has greatly impeded healthcare.

“The ministry office in Baghdad is under the control of ignorant people who know nothing about medical science,” a doctor told IPS. “The whole ministry is controlled by clerics who brought their militiamen along to divert the ministry into a death squad headquarters. Many of my colleagues resigned, were expelled or abducted by those who should have provided protection for them. Others quit and left the country.”

The independent Iraq Medical Association (IMA) announced earlier this month that the healthcare system has continued to deteriorate and lacks adequate qualified staff and equipment. The IMA estimates that 90 percent of the nearly 180 hospitals countrywide lack essential resources.

“Our hospitals look more like barns with lack of electric power, medicines, equipment and now doctors and surgeons because of the corrupt managers who care for nothing but filling their pockets with false contract money and conducting sectarian killings against doctors and patients,” a doctor from a hospital in Baghdad told IPS. “I personally have been able to stay with my job only because I am from the favoured sect and my cousin is a ruling party member.”

The IMA announced this month that of 34,000 Iraqi physicians registered prior to 2003, over half have fled the country, and that at least 2,000 have been killed.

Two months ago the Iraqi Islamic Party announced that its candidate for deputy health minister was abducted from inside the minister’s office. “Dr. Ali al-Mehdawi is still in the hands of his kidnappers, and we are not certain of his safety,” a senior Islamic Party member told IPS.

Despite more than a billion dollars claimed to have been spent by the U.S. on Iraq’s healthcare system, health needs are one of the biggest problems for Iraqis under the occupation. There appears to be no quick solution to this worsening situation.

Apparent corruption has made the crisis worse. Earlier this year a 200 million dollar reconstruction project for building 142 primary care centres ran out of cash with just 20 on course for completion, a situation the WHO described as “shocking.”

The Iraqi government estimates that 8 billion dollars is needed over the next four years to fund the ailing healthcare system.

The campaign group Medact has reported that in Iraq “easily treatable conditions such as diarrhoea and respiratory illness caused 70 percent of all child deaths,” and “of the 180 health clinics the U.S. hoped to build by the end of 2005, only four have been completed — and none opened.”