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Iraq’s Health Care Under the Occupation

Since the US military invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iraq’s health care system has deteriorated as a result of deliberate destruction by the US administration. The most vulnerable victims of this destruction are the Iraqi children, particularly children under the age of five.

A detailed new study by the British-based charity organisation (Medact) that examines the impact of war on health, revealed cases of vaccine-preventable diseases were rising and relief and reconstruction work had been mismanaged. Gill Reeve, the deputy director of Medact who released the report said, “[t]he health of the Iraqi people has deteriorated since the 2003 invasion … The 2003 war not only created the conditions for further health decline, but also damaged the ability of Iraqi society to reverse it”.

A second report, to be released soon, revealed that acute malnutrition among Iraqi children between the ages of six months and 5 years has increased from 4% before the invasion to 7.7% since the US invasion of Iraq. In other words, despite the 13-years sanctions, Iraqi children were living much better (by 3.7%) under the regime of Saddam Hussein than under the Occupation.

The report, which was conducted by the Norway-based Institute of Applied International Studies, or Fafo, in cooperation with the Iraq’s Central Office for Statistics and Information Technology, Iraq’s Health Ministry, and the UN Development Program (UNDP), shows that about 400,000 Iraqi children are suffering from ‘wasting’ and ’emaciation’ ­ conditions of chronic diarrhoea and protein deficiency.

A recent UNICEF report shows that, “[b]efore 1990 and the imposition of sanctions, Iraq had one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East”. Now UNICEF reports, “at least 200 children are dying every day. They are dying from malnutrition, a lack of clean water and a lack of medical equipment and drugs to cure easily treatable diseases”. The UNICEF report shows that, child mortality was not getting any better since the conflict started in 2003 and that the death rate among children was rising.

UNICEF estimates that there are about 6,880 deaths of children under the age of five every year in Iraq, with an under-fives mortality rate of 125 per 1,000 live births. Furthermore, the mortality rate of Iraqi women during pregnancy and childbirth has reached three times the rate reported during the period between 1989 and 2002, a study by the United Nations Population Fund reported.

A medical delegation from the American Friends Service Committee found that years of sanctions “have had their severest impact on families and children there, producing a generation of young people weakened by disease, isolated from the outside world and left to feed on feelings of bitterness and injustice”. In its report, the delegation noted that, “the consequences of the sanctions fall most heavily on children. While adults can endure long periods of hardship and privation, children’s physiological immaturity and vulnerability provide them with less resistance. They are put at greater risk and are less likely to survive persistent shortages” of food and health care.

Earlier report by the UN stated that before the first US war, “Iraq had an extensive national health care network. Primary care services were available to 97% of the urban population and 71% of the rural population”. Every Iraqi citizen had the right to free health care provided by the government. In 1991, Iraq had 1,800 primary health centres, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

As a result of US war and sanctions, a decade later that number had fallen to 929, of which a third require serious rehabilitation, one of the most pressing needs to date.

The US-British sponsored sanctions and wars against the Iraqi people have killed more than 2 million Iraqi civilians, a third of them were children under the age of five. Iraq’s health care and education systems were deliberately targeted for destruction.

Under the US-UN imposed sanctions, Iraq’s public health care system has eroded at every level. Life-saving medical supplies such as chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, vaccines etc., are either banned or delayed under the dual-use policy. Medical equipments that Iraq was allowed to import were either blocked from delivery by US-Britain or the shipments were almost invariably incomplete and of unusable quality.

Using the usual mask of the UN, “the US had prevented the normal importation of indispensable items of equipment for more than a decade” wrote Tom Nagy of George Washington University. In his research on the effect of sanctions on Iraq’s water and the health care system, Nagy found that the US “intentionally destroying whatever had remained of Iraq’s water system within six months by using sanctions to prevent the import of a mere handful of items of equipment and chemicals” that are vital for the treatment of water.

During the US assault on Fallujah, US forces cut off water and electricity to the city of 300,000 people. US air strikes have destroyed hospitals and medical centres. The US took over the Fallujah General Hospital and converted to a military hospital, thus denying the citizens of Fallujah any health care service. On 09 November 2004, US warplanes attacked the Nazzal Emergency Hospital in the centre of the city and completely destroyed it. Thirty-five patients were killed, including five children under the ages of 10 years. According to Amnesty International, “20 Iraqi medical staff [doctors and nurses] and dozens of other civilians were killed when a missile hit a Fallujah clinic on 09 November 2004”. The air strike also destroyed the hospital medical supplies warehouse. The destruction of Fallujah is a crime against humanity.

As of today, the exact number of civilians killed by the US assault on Fallujah is not known. According to an official in the Allawi’s puppet “government”, “more than 2085” Iraqis have been killed. US forces used internationally banned weapons such as napalm, phosphorous weapons and jet fuel, which makes the human body melt, to attack the city in violation of international law. Medact has also called on US forces to re-evaluate the use of these illegal weapons in populated areas, given the high rate of civilian casualties.

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society was prevented by US forces from entering the city to provide supplies to the wounded civilians, and called the health conditions in and around Fallujah “catastrophic”. Eyewitnesses say most of the victims are civilians, including, women, children, and unarmed men between the ages of 14-60 years old, who were prevented from leaving the city before the US onslaught. Furthermore, many children have died as a result of starvation, dehydration and outbreaks of diarrhoeal infections. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that the death of was “an unconscionable slaughter of innocents”. “The killing of children is a crime and a moral outrage”, Bellamy added.

Medact says: “The war is a continuing public health disaster that was predictable – and should have been preventable”. It added that, “[e]xcess deaths and injuries and high levels of illness are the direct and indirect results of ongoing conflict”. According to the Medact, Iraq had also experienced an alarming recurrence of previously well-controlled communicable diseases, including acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea and typhoid, particularly among children.

The Medact study found that, “[o]ne in four people in Iraq were now dependent on food aid, and there were more children underweight or chronically malnourished than before the US invasion”. The near disappearance of immunisation programmes had contributed to the recurrence of death and illness from preventable disease, and infant mortality rose due to a lack of access to skilled help in childbirth, as well as to violence, confirming the Fafo report.

The Fafo report paints a catastrophic picture of Iraq’s health care under US Occupation. “It’s in the level of some African countries”, Jon Pedersen, deputy-managing director of the Norway-based Institute told The Associated Press. “Of course, no child should be malnourished, but when we’re getting to levels of 7 to 8 percent, it’s a clear sign of concern”, he added.

Like the Fafo report, the Medact study specifically blames the US Occupation for the deteriorating conditions in Iraq’s health and the tactics of the US-led occupying forces for exacerbating the country’s health problems, particularly the decision to sideline the UN. Unreliable supplies of electricity have made it hard to boil water for safe drinking. The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, including the sewage and water systems has exacerbated the problem and led to increase in outbreaks of virulent diseases such as hepatitis. More that 20% of urban residents and 60% of rural Iraqis don’t have access to clean water, as a result of the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure. According to the Medact report: “twelve percent of Iraq’s hospitals were damaged during the war and the country’s two main public health laboratories were also destroyed”.

In order to foster the sale Iraqi assets and resources, the US must render them useless first. The deliberate targeting of Iraq’s health care system for destruction is part of the illegal armed conquest of Iraq. The objective is quite clear: the cheap sale of Iraqi assets and resources to US corporations.
The US is unable to provide all Iraqis with acceptable and equal health care. Health care in the US is worse than any of the developing countries, with appalling statistics. The US is one of the few countries in the world that does not provide universal health care for children and pregnant women. Infant mortality, low birth weight, and child deaths under five are ranked among the highest in the U.S. as compared to Western industrial nations and Japan.
According to Gill Reeve, of Medact: “Immediate action is needed to halt this health disaster”. The best and lasting solution to the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq is for the US to stop the violence against the Iraqi people, withdraw its forces from Iraq, and restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty. The current interim US-appointed “government” is illegitimate. Iraq’s sovereignty should be restored to ensure the peaceful rehabilitation of Iraq’s infrastructure and health care system.

GHALI HASSAN lives in Perth Western Australia: He can be reached at e-mail:
G.Hassan@exchange.curtin.edu.au

Notes:

(1) Medact study:

http://www.medact.org/

 

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