How Much Can Iraq Survive

BAGHDAD — Iraqis surviving violence are not so sure they can also survive disease.

“Iraq was known to be the best in healthcare in the region,” Dr. Iyad Muhammad from Ramadi General Hospital told IPS. “Best doctors, hospitals, nurses and cheapest medicines. The situation now is the opposite.”

Dr. Muhammad said several doctors have been killed, and many more have fled the country. Patients are looking to follow them too, he said, with many prepared to sell their property to go abroad for treatment.

“Our situation now has become worse than during the sanctions period (in the 1990s after the first Gulf war) when more than one million died and we had very little medicine and supplies to treat them.”

Iraq’s health index has deteriorated to a level not seen since the 1950s, Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division and an Iraq specialist has said.

With only sparse care now available at hospitals, Iraqis in need cross the border to Syria and Jordan for treatment. That comes at a price because as foreigners they can go only to private hospitals.

Iraqi officials say remedies are on the way. “There have been many contracts to construct new hospitals, and our ministry is studying more all over Iraq,” Ahmed Hussein from the Iraqi Ministry of Health told IPS. “The existing hospitals are old and we would rather build new ones.”

But widespread corruption has been reported in the Ministry of Health, which is being led by politicians with no experience in healthcare. The ministry is officially led by a member of the movement of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sectarianism determines who gets the kind of treatment still available.

“You go to a hospital and you find pictures of clerics all over the place, as if you were in a shrine,” Qassim Brissam, a Shia Iraqi analyst in London told IPS on telephone. “Clerics are not doctors, and they should not run hospitals.”

Iraqi doctors are painfully aware that growing sectarianism has worsened the deteriorating health system.

“I appeared on a documentary concerning Iraqi hospitals, and that was the biggest mistake I ever committed,” Dr. Rafi Jassim from Baghdad told IPS. “I was lucky to learn in proper time that militias were to raid my house that night. Now I am on the run just like any fugitive criminal, and my family faces the threat of a terrorist attack any moment.”

A combination of sanctions, war and occupation has brought to Iraq the world’s worst deterioration in child mortality rate. According to a report ‘The State of the World’s Children’ released by UNICEF this year, Iraq’s mortality rate for children under five was 50 per 1000 live births in 1990, and 125 in 2005, an annual average deterioration of 6.1 percent.

When the U.S.-led invasion was launched in 2003, the Bush administration pledged to cut Iraq’s child mortality rate by half by 2005. Instead, the rate has worsened, now to 130 in 2006, according to Iraqi Health Ministry figures.

Availability of medical supplies continues to be a critical factor.

“We have been exporters of medicines to Iraq, but we are not able to get any contract now to supply the Ministry of Health with medicines,” Dr. Hammed al-Nuaimy, manager of a large medical supply company told IPS in Baghdad. “This is the case even though we always submit the best prices and brands of European origin.”

Al-Nuaimy would not say why his company failed to get supply contracts despite competitive offers. “I leave it for you and your readers to answer,” he said.

“We are being ignored by our government and by the Americans,” 55-year-old Hammad Hussein from Fallujah told IPS on a visit to Baghdad. “The promises of a better life have just turned out to be ugly death.”

Hussein added, “Our hospitals and clinics are paralysed and we do not find the simplest treatment, so we always have to buy medicines from the commercial market which means we have to sell something like a refrigerator or a TV set to cure a sick member of the family.”

Sanaa Sulayman, studying for a biology degree at the University of Baghdad’s science department told IPS that no one seems to look at health in Iraq from the environmental perspective.

“The huge amounts of explosives dropped on Iraq including those ‘special weapons’ like radioactive Depleted Uranium and white phosphorous have caused a dramatic increase in numbers of patients and severity of diseases,” Sulayman said. “It is still getting worse by the day and no one seems to care.”

A dentist from Fallujah told IPS that most Iraqis have been neglecting dental care because they are unable to afford it.

“Dental care is considered a luxury by Iraqis now, and they will not visit our clinics unless they have an intolerable toothache,” said the doctor. “Most of them would ask for a tooth to be pulled rather than filling it because they cannot afford proper treatment.”

The mental health situation is equally grim for Iraqis.

In a study ‘Psychological effects of war on Iraqis’ the Association of Iraqi Psychologists (AIP) reported in January 2007 that of 2,000 people interviewed in all 18 Iraqi provinces, 92 percent said they feared being killed in an explosion.

Sixty percent of those interviewed said the level of violence had caused them to have panic attacks, and this prevented them from going out because they feared they would be the next victims.

*(Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)