Iraq: Doctors, NGOs warn of high infant mortality in Basra

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
BASRA, 11 April (IRIN) - As a result of water-borne diseases and a lack of medical supplies, infants born in the southern city of Basra are subject to abnormally high mortality rates, say officials of an international NGO devoted to child health issues.

"For weeks, there were no I.V. fluids available in the hospitals of Basra," said Marie Fernandez, spokeswoman for European aid agency Saving Children from War. "As a consequence, many children, mainly under five-years old, died after suffering from extreme cases of diarrhoea."

Fernandez went on to cite a number of problems facing local hospitals in Basra, which is located some 550km south of the capital, Baghdad. "Hospitals have no ventilators to help prematurely-born babies breathe," Fernandez said. "And there are very few nurses available, so hospitals often must allow family members to care for patients."

Many doctors in the area say that the local health situation has deteriorated markedly since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. "The mortality of children in Basra has increased by nearly 30 percent compared to the Saddam Hussein era," Dr Haydar Salah, a paediatrician at the Basra Children's Hospital, pointed out. "Children are dying daily, and no one is doing anything to help them."

Fernandez added that, for the last three years, the Maternity and Children's' hospital in Basra had not received any cancer drugs from the health ministry. "In all of Basra, a city with nearly two million inhabitants, there's no radiotherapy department available," Fernandez complained.

Khalid Ala'a, spokesman for local NGO Keeping Children Alive, said that Basra hospitals lacked many essential drugs and antibiotics used to treat infections common to the area. "We've asked for help from the Ministry of Health, but they only tell us they don't have money to supply hospitals," Ala'a said. "They tell us we must wait for investment, which could take months."

Health ministry officials, responding to the charges, point to the ongoing deadlock over the formation of a new government. "We depend on the central government for money," said senior ministry official Ahmed Salahdinne. "What we're receiving, we're distributing, according to our capacity, to all areas of Iraq."

According to doctors and NGOs, the primary causes of high infant mortality are unsafe water, diarrhoea, malnutrition, infectious diseases, maternal stress and poverty. In light of these grave circumstances, local NGOs and doctors have called on international aid agencies to help ease the situation.