WHO health briefing on Iraq

UN Humanitarian briefing
18 April 2003


The World Health Organization is receiving increasingly detailed information about the evolving status of the health system in Iraq, as a result of ongoing assessments in several locations. This allows WHO to continue building a fuller picture which helps target assistance for the Iraqi people, including specific lists of the health supplies needed. WHO is using this information to kick start health services in communities around Iraq.

An assessment from Mosul has found that 50- 70% of health services are functional, and that looting has not been as severe as in other centres. There are many people in need of health care, however, including many casualties from the conflict. As with other centres, funds will be needed to continue running health services, and to improve them. In Baghdad, ongoing assessments are providing additional details as to the status of the staff, the patients and the supplies in health facilities.

The Yarmouk hospital, with 770 beds, has been partially looted, and only about 10% of the staff are still working. The hospital has been operating with little electricity, but this should change over the weekend, as a new generator is being installed. This hospital, like many others, urgently needs filled oxygen cylinders.

The Ibn Al Nafis Vascular and Cardiac hospital, with 170 beds, is one of the few that is still functional. Surgeons from other hospitals which were damaged or looted are lending a hand at this hospital. While the hospital seems to be secure, hygiene is reported as very poor. The facility urgently needs basic supplies including anti septic and bandaging, as well as surgical tools, I.V. canulas and I.V. fluids.

The Ibn Al Hithem opthamology Teaching Hospital, with 400 beds, is reported to be in good shape, and has not been looted.

The Al Rashid hospital, however, is reported to have been burned and looted. WHO is concerned about the approximately 700 patients who fled the hospital, and have not returned. These people, with injuries, infections and other trauma, are extremely vulnerable, and in need of medical assistance. This situation tragically underscores the need and obligation for the occupying forces to ensure civil order and security, including the security for hospitals and other medical facilities.

Medical supply warehouses

New reports about the medical supply warehouses in Baghdad are more encouraging today. Whereas original reports indicated that all of these warehouses had been looted and destroyed, closer inspection shows that at least five of the warehouses, including some with medicines and medical supplies and equipment, are still intact. WHO will conduct visits to each warehouse to take an inventory of the remaining stocks.

Laboratory looting

There were reports earlier this week that a major communicable disease control laboratory in Bagdhad had been looted, and that cultures with poliovirus and incubators were stolen. WHO believes this is unlikely to pose an immediate public health risk in Iraq. As this country has been polio-free for over 2 years, it is extremely unlikely that any of the cultures in the incubators actually contained wild poliovirus. Furthermore, as this is a national level laboratory, it would not be expected to have wild poliovirus control specimens. The potential risk from historical specimens that are stored in freezers and that might contain wild poliovirus is also low. Even if such specimens did exist, they would rapidly deteriorate once the electricity supply to a freezer was interrupted.

For further information, please contact WHO spokespersons Melanie Zipperer in Amman (00 4179 477 1722) or Christine McNab in Geneva (00 41 79 254 6815)

The following WHO specialists are available to respond to media questions: Dr Ghulam Popal, Head of the WHO country office in Iraq (+962 795 7092); Dr Mohamed Jama, Deputy Regional Director, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office, Cairo (+202 276 5026 ); Dr Jim Tulloch, WHO Regional Health Coordinator, (+4179 509 0640); Dr David Nabarro, WHO Executive Director, Geneva (+41 22 791 2363, +41 79 217 3446)