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Iraq: No End in Sight To The Challenges Of National Health System

Doctors in Iraq complain about the lack of new medical equipment and drugs, and say the situation is getting worse. They say though some international help is coming, it is a drop in the ocean for a country exhausted by a decade of sanctions and by unending conflicts.

Baghdad, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi doctors say they lack the equipment, medicine, and security they need to provide adequate medical care to their patients.

Deprived of the care they need, Iraqis are dying in growing numbers of cancer and infectious diseases. Moreover, relatively new diseases like AIDS appear to be making an impact in the country. It is almost impossible to know for certain how many Iraqis are suffering from AIDS or other illnesses. There are no official health statistics.

Professor Samir Assadawi is a senior official with the Iraqi Medical Association, a nongovernmental organization bringing together Iraqi health-care professionals. "Actually in Iraq, as in any developing country, we are very poor in [terms of] statistics. No statistics," he said. "You know, if you ask how many cases of cholera [there are in Iraq], nobody can tell you."

Furthermore, Assadawi said the situation is going from bad to worse. He said the continuing lack of security has scared away many foreign NGOs that had been providing medical assistance and support.

Few hospitals have felt the benefit of reconstruction funds -- a problem Assadawi attributes to widespread construction. "I have touched nothing that has come to the hospitals as the result of reconstruction," he said.
Musa said Iraqi doctors have worked in poor conditions for so long that they have learned to cope with what is available.

Mahdi Jasim Musa is a leading surgeon at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital. He said he encounters shortages in his work every day. Musa, who has worked as a surgeon for 31 years, said equipment in Iraqi hospitals is hopelessly outdated.

"You know, for the last 30 years or 25 years, no new hospitals have been built. There is no maintenance for the hospitals. All the buildings are old, with old equipment. The import of drugs to the country is limited. We feel this [deprivation] daily in our work in the hospitals," Musa said.

Musa said Iraqi doctors have worked in poor conditions for so long that they have learned to cope with what is available. The work continues, but the patients suffer more than they do in neighboring countries with better-funded health-care systems.

One day his hospital may lack antibiotics, Musa said. The next day it is anesthetics. The day after that it is blood. There is seemingly no end to the cycle. And the current chaos in Iraq is making the challenges even more desperate. "Sure, there is death,” he said. “There are complications in our work. There is higher morbidity than previously."

Samir Assadawi of the Iraqi Medical Association agrees. He said a shortage of medicine and safe blood supplies is only a small part of a very large problem. The heart of the problem, he said, is the total collapse of the medical care system -- Iraqi doctors working with 40-year-old equipment using a combination of experience and intuition to guide them. Many people, he said, die undiagnosed and untreated.

In additional to physical illnesses, many Iraqis are also suffering from psychological disorders. The past year has left many Iraqis suffering various forms of trauma, and Iraq's mental-health system -- never good -- is not equipped to help. "It's very bad. There is no organized care for them, actually. So it is very bad. In this field [of mental health,] we are very bad in dealing with patients. And there is also a shortage [of the drugs used to treat such patients] because these drugs are expensive," Assadawi said.

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, patients suffering from serious psychological disorders depended on state care. Now, such care no longer exists. Many patients were released from mental-health institutions following the U.S.-led invasion and left to fend for themselves. Even now, some of them have yet to return to hospitals for care.

Samir Assadawi said the past year of occupation has left even ordinary Iraqis in desperate need of psychological care. The situation, he said, is extremely grim. "All Iraqi people are depressed now, including me. [Are they getting] organized medical help? No," he said.

In a country where even hospitals are the target of bombing attacks, it will be many years before Iraqis can get the medical and psychological care they need.

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