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Iraq: UN Seeks Money For Health Care

The World Health Organization -- an arm of the United Nations -- says it needs a quick and generous infusion of money to meet the needs of the people of Iraq for the next six months, RFE/RL reports. In other medical news, researchers find a gene linked to breast cancer and make progress in the treatment of Alzheimer's.

Washington, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations is appealing to countries around the world for at least $2.2 billion to provide assistance to the people of Iraq for the next six months. The UN says $325 million of that amount would go into an emergency fund specifically to meet the Iraqi people's immediate health, nutrition, water, and sanitation needs.

The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) is requesting that $185 million of this money be earmarked particularly for their activities. The WHO is already working in Iraq, employing a staff of about 350 Iraqi health-care professionals inside the country and supporting another larger international group just outside the nation that is waiting until the situation stabilizes before returning in full strength.

David Nabarro, a physician who serves as the WHO's executive director in Geneva, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that the health of the Iraqi population has been seriously compromised by two decades of war and economic sanctions.

Nabarro said that during the most recent conflict in Iraq, the WHO successfully sent teams to help with outbreaks of diarrhea in northern Iraq and to treat people who had left their homes because of the conflict. But he said much more aid is needed to protect the Iraqi population -- particularly children.

Nabarro said child death rates in Iraq are twice as high today as they were 10 years ago. Currently, WHO statistics show that one in eight children die before the age of five, one in three children is malnourished, and one in four begins life as an underweight infant.

"When it comes to working with children, we work very closely with our sister agency, UNICEF -- the United Nations Children's Fund. And between us, we have documented that the risks faced by Iraq's children mostly relate to the fact that they don't have enough clean water and that means they get diarrheal disease," Nabarro said.

Other threats to children's health, according to Nabarro, are respiratory infections, measles, and malnutrition, especially in infants and toddlers.

For decades, he said, Iraqi children have been traumatized by war and sanctions, and many need treatment for psycho-social issues. Nabarro said physical ailments may be more pressing, but he stressed that psychological issues should not be neglected.

Nabarro said the WHO will use the requested funds to provide a monetary allowance to Iraqi doctors and staff so they can go to work and buy adequate medical supplies, food for patients, fuel for generators, and equipment to keep hospitals clean.

"What we're doing at the moment is what we call 'kick-starting' the health system so it can get back and working again after the collapse of government and authority in the country," Nabarro said.

He added that money from around the world is coming in because many governments are responding to the cry for help. This is encouraging, he said, because as soon as the security situation allows, the WHO should be able to get into the country at full strength and get "working without too much trouble."

Nonetheless, Nabarro said the goal of $2.2 billion has not yet been met, and more cash is needed. He said the WHO is appealing for support not only from wealthy nations, but from many Middle Eastern countries as well.

"It costs around $20 million a month to keep the health service going for 25 million people. Obviously we're not spending anything like that amount at the moment, because we haven't got much access to the country. But we are prepared for it to build up as and when the new administration gets established," Nabarro said.

According to Nabarro, a substantial investment is needed in order to rebuild the most critical and badly affected parts of the health-care system in Iraq -- an important part of the country's economic and social system.


Researchers Find Gene Linked To Breast Cancer

Scientists in the United States have found a new gene linked to breast cancer. The gene, called BP1, was found in 80 percent of the tissue from breast-cancer patients.

Oddly enough, however, only 57 percent of the samples that tested positive for the gene came from Caucasian women, in contrast to 89 percent of the samples from black women.

Researchers hope the discrepancy will help make clear the reasons why black women die more often from breast cancer than Caucasian women do, even when they receive identical medical treatment.

More than 1.2 million women worldwide will develop breast cancer this year, including 200,000 in the United States. The American Cancer Society says that in the United States, the cancer will kill 40,000 women this year.


Proteins May Help Diagnose Alzheimer's

A new study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland has found that two proteins in spinal fluid may aid doctors in accurately diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.

There is now no medical method for predicting or diagnosing the disease, which causes severe memory loss and dementia. Physicians now diagnose the disease when other medical causes have been ruled out and can confirm the diagnosis only after a patient has died and the brain can be examined.

The new study showed that the two proteins -- one tau and one type of beta-amyloid -- were different in the spinal fluid of patients who were suspected of having Alzheimer's disease. Specifically, the beta-amyloid levels were lower and tau protein levels were higher in patients with Alzheimer's disease than in the healthy participants of the study, researchers say.

Scientists have warned that the results are still preliminary, but agree the findings are encouraging and could lead to better diagnosis and treatment of the disease.