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[casi] Iraqi children are suffering

Saturday, Jun. 28, 2003

Iraqi children are suffering

>From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Baghdad  Three-year-old Ibrahim Issam is clearly in pain. Clad in an orange
jumpsuit, sitting on his father's knee in the Central Teaching Hospital's
waiting room, he screams incessantly, unable to express where it hurts. In
the already sweltering June heat, his forehead is even hotter to the touch.

His parents think he's got gastroenteritis, a stomach disease that
dehydrates children rapidly and that has plagued this country since the
United Nations imposed sanctions here 12 years ago, a trading embargo that
left Iraq without chlorine to treat its water. His sister Aisha, just 18
months old, dozes on the hospital bed behind Ibrahim. She has the same

The sanctions are gone now, but children like Ibrahim and Aisha still
suffer. The situation, many say, is worse now. Even in big cities like
Baghdad, the water remains undrinkable, and in the summer heat, many
families have taken to drawing water directly from the polluted Tigris

"They have problems in their stomachs, diarrhea and vomiting. They're sick
because the drinking water is dirty," the children's father, Issam Khalil,
says. "Things are not better now than during the sanctions."

Doctors here agree. In interviews this week, three of Iraq's top
pediatricians said that although no statistics are available, they believe
the rate of child mortality  among the highest in the world during the past
12 years  has risen even higher since Saddam Hussein's regime fell and the
United States took over governing the country.

With the medical system depleted by postwar looting and the slow restoration
of basic services, the doctors feel underequipped to deal with what they
expect will be a growing flood of cases like Ibrahim's and Aisha's. And in
the early summer heat, which often peaks above 45 in the afternoon,
infections are spreading like fire.

"There's no government since the end of the war, and the crisis is getting
worse and worse," said Emad al-Hadithy, chief resident at the Central
Teaching Hospital. "When we compare this period with the period of the
embargo, the embargo was better."

Dr. al-Hadithy said that since the war in Iraq ended two months ago, he has
seen a sharp rise not only in cases of gastroenteritis but in the so-called
black fever, a disease spread by the sand flies which have been multiplying
in Baghdad as piles of uncollected litter grow on the streets of the

He also fears another rise in childhood leukemia, like the one after the
Persian Gulf war in 1991, which many doctors here believe was caused by the
depleted-uranium shells that U.S. forces used.

Before the latest war, the children's health crisis in Iraq was already
staggering. A pair of Canadian doctors, Eric Hoskins and Samantha Nutt, who
visited the country in January, estimated that 500,000 of Iraq's 13 million
children were malnourished.

The United Nations Children's Fund says 70 per cent of all deaths among
Iraqi children are caused by diarrhea-related diseases, and says that rates
of such illnesses are "much higher than this time last year."

A recent Unicef survey in Baghdad found 7.7 per cent of children under the
age of 5 were suffering acute malnutrition, up from 4 per cent before the

Complicating matters is the unpredictable security situation in Baghdad and
other cities. Many parents, especially those who live in rural areas, are
afraid to drive the sometimes dangerous roads into larger cities for
hospital care.

"They come here only when the baby reaches the final stage of advanced
gastroenteritis," Dr. al-Hadithy said.

Ibrahim and Aisha's parents hope they haven't waited too long. Mr. Khalil
said they watched Ibrahim suffer for two days, afraid to go to the hospital,
hoping he'd get better, before finally making the drive into Baghdad.

The hospitals that parents are travelling to are not sure they can cope.
Though international aid organizations have been pitching in to help since
the war ended, there's little that can be done until the overall situation
in the county improves.

"Medicine is coming in now, but we don't have good security; we don't have
electricity; we don't have a clean water supply," said Nazar al-Anbalai,
director of the al-Mansur children's hospital, who said his doctors often
have to work by candlelight and consciously skimp on the amount of water
they use.

"If this doesn't change soon, there will be even more of an increase in the
number of children's deaths."

In the hallways of his hospital, parents watching over their sick children
are despondent.

"He's not eating anything," whimpered Bayan Jihad Abdul Razak, hugging her
pallid-looking son, Mustafa, against her as they took a walk through the
al-Mansur's crowded hallways. Though the boy is 20 months old, he looks much
smaller. He's suffering from gastroenteritis as well as anemia.

"The situation here is not good. He's always sick, since he was born," Ms.
Abdul Razak said. "He doesn't eat anything. I wish I could send him out of

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