Iraq: Need for medicines great

By Callie Long and Rainer Lang
Geneva, January 28, 2003 - Like many Iraqis, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Basra in southern Iraq is afraid - afraid of the effects of yet another destructive war and especially afraid of the fall-out of such war on the southern parts of the country where his church is.

"We are afraid. We have no plans where to go ... except that we will flee to safe havens" he said, speaking to the media at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva, Switzerland. Giving an overview of his experiences of having lived through two wars in the last two decades, Archbishop Gabriel Kassab said that his region in particular has been hit hard by the wars and their harmful consequences. Highlighting conditions in the hospitals of Iraq, and in particular Basra, he said it was "very difficult to describe". Already "many were without the most basic equipment", or trying to get by with equipment that was no longer functioning.

Responding to the need for medicines, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International member, Diakonie Emergency Aid (DEA) of Germany, had earlier shipped various medicines used to treat cancer to Iraq. The shipment was destined for the Mother and Child Hospital in Basra in the south of the country. An Austrian medical doctor, Eva-Maria Hobiger, whose aid project at the hospital is supported by DEA, reports alarming statistics: every third child born at the hospital in Basra is either physically disabled or severely ill and cases of cancer for Basra and the rest of southern Iraq have increased five-fold since 1990.

In a report to DEA Hobiger writes that there is hardly any help for the sick children in Basra. Bearing out Archbishop Kassab's bleak litany of statistics to the media, Hobiger reports that not only is there a severe lack of medicine, but also of medical equipment. The grim reality is that in Basra, 80 percent of children suffering from leukemia die within a few weeks of being diagnosed as a result of the lack of proper medicine.

Dr. Zuhair F. Fathallah, a doctor specializing in burn wounds at a clinic in Basra said that last year "we could not do any blood transfusions for months". Blood reserves had run dry and new reserves were delayed, because of the bureaucracy created by the UN imposed sanctions against Iraq, he explained. "Six months - they were delayed for six months", he said. "People died - there is a lack of everything in my hospital", adding that disposable syringes were being recycled, contributing to the spread of hepatitis.

Dr. Fathallah blames the high incidents of cancer-related illnesses experienced by the population on the use of depleted uranium during the Gulf War, which he says, has polluted the soil and groundwater over the last decade. According to him this is having a severe effect on the health of the people who are experiencing increased rates of cancers.

Southern Iraq and Basra however, are not the only places where medicines used in treating cancer are in short supply in Iraq. Baghdad faces many of the same challenges, says Dr Ahmed A. Mohamed of Saddam Hospital, explaining that they share what they have with other clinics in the capital.

Three-year old Yasin, being cradled in his mother's arms is exhausted. He is one of the lucky few who has been receiving treatment for leukemia, with which he was diagnosed a year ago. He is slowly on his way to recovery and only because of the fact that although in short supply, there is more medicine available here in Baghdad than in other parts of the country.

Dr. Mohamed faces many challenges any given day. Incubators used for premature babies are old and no longer function properly. His plea to the world is simply put - "end the sanctions and do not start another war."

Echoing this plea in Geneva, Archbishop Kassab said "the effects of the different kinds of armaments (used during the Gulf War) left serious wounds on large numbers of children", also laying the blame at the door of the use of depleted uranium. "The real anguish of the mothers is", he said, that their first question is no longer will my baby be a girl or boy, but rather, " will my child be born disabled?"

(The Chaldean Catholic Church of Iraq is working ecumenically with other churches, including those who are members of the World Council of Churches and ACT International.)