Despite Promises, Iraq Health Care Slides

Pity the sick of Iraq

After repeatedly topping the Arab health index, Iraq’s health record is now worse than ever because of the US-led occupation. The general effect on the Iraqi population amounts to a massive war crime, writes Bert De Belder*

In March, the deadliest month witnessed by Iraqis recently, some 67 lives on the average were lost daily, as a result of bombings and acts of violence. An elderly man mourns his relative at the entrance of a local hospital in Baghdad’s impoverished district of Sadr City. Political violence has conspired with the occupation to wreak havoc not only with lives, but, as well, the infrastructure needed to safeguard the health of millions of Iraqis

Health standards in Iraq plummet because of the United States occupation of the country: Iraqi medics treat a wounded child at a hospital in the oil rich city of Kirkuk (left); and Iraqi women rush to the site where a car bomb exploded in Baghdad’s impoverished district of Sadr City

Iraq’s health status, four years into the occupation, is nothing short of disastrous. Iraq’s health index has deteriorated to a level not seen since the 1950s, says Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division and an Iraq specialist. People’s health status is determined by social, economic and environmental factors much more than by the availability of healthcare. Not surprisingly, all these factors have deteriorated in the course of the occupation.

A recent UNDP-backed study reveals that one-third of Iraqis live in poverty, with more than five per cent living in abject poverty. The UN agency observes that this contrasts starkly with the country’s thriving middle- income economy of the 1970s and 1980s. But these figures may well be a grave underestimation, as other reports speak of eight million out of 28 million Iraqis living in extreme poverty on incomes of less than $1 per day. More than 500,000 Baghdad residents get water for only a few hours a day. And the majority of Iraqis get three hours of electricity a day, in contrast to pre-war levels of about 20 hours.

THE DEVASTATED HEALTH OF IRAQI CHILDREN: The combination of sanctions, war and occupation has resulted in Iraq showing the world’s worst evolution in child mortality: from an under-five mortality rate of 50 per 1000 live births in 1990, to 125 in 2005. That means an annual deterioration of 6.1 per cent — a world record, well behind very poor and AIDS- affected Botswana. At the outset of the 2003 war, the US administration pledged to cut Iraq’s child mortality rate in half by 2005. But the rate has continued to worsen, to 130 in 2006, according to Iraqi Health Ministry figures.

Nutrition is, of course, vital to health. According to the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), about one in 10 Iraqi children under five are underweight (acutely malnourished) and one in five are short for their age (chronically malnourished). But this is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Claire Hajaj, communications officer at the UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman. “Many Iraqi children may also be suffering from ‘hidden hunger’ — deficiencies in critical vitamins and minerals that are the building blocks for children’s physical and intellectual development,” Hajaj says. “These deficiencies are hard to measure, but they make children much more vulnerable to illness and less likely to thrive at school.” Hayder Hussainy, a senior official at the Iraqi Ministry of Health, states that approximately 50 per cent of Iraqi children suffer from some form of malnourishment.

Also important is the psychological impact of war and occupation. In a study entitled “The Psychological Effects of War on Iraqis”, the Association of Iraqi Psychologists (AIP) reports that out of 2,000 people interviewed in all 18 Iraqi provinces, 92 per cent said they feared being killed in an explosion. Some 60 per cent of those interviewed said the level of violence had caused them to have panic attacks, which prevented them from going out because they feared they would be the next victims. The AIP also surveyed over 1,000 children across Iraq and found that 92 per cent of children examined had learning impediments, largely attributable to the current climate of fear and insecurity. “The only thing they have on their minds are guns, bullets, death and a fear of the US occupation,” says the AIP’s Marwan Abdullah.

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