WHO health briefing on Iraq

UN humanitarian briefing
28 April 2003

WHO’s national staff - 327 people - have been working flat out to support the re-establishment of the health situation in Iraq. Where needed, WHO is coordinating delivery of essential supplies and equipment, and is on the alert to detect and respond to disease outbreaks. WHO is also carefully monitoring hospital security, the status of essential services including water and electricity, and the overall condition of health facilities. WHO’s work is expanding rapidly around Iraq - from Mosul and Kirkut, to Tikrit, Diyala, Baghdad, Nassiriya and Basrah.

WHO sends insulin for hundreds in Baghdad

An urgent problem in some hospitals in Iraq is a lack of medicines and supplies for people with chronic illnesses - including heart conditions, cancer and diabetes.

Last Thursday, Yarmouk hospital in Baghdad sent an urgent request to WHO for insulin, as the hospital had completely run out. Without insulin, people with diabetes will die. In response to the request, the WHO Country office in Jordan immediately obtained 600 vials of injectable insulin. Each vial is enough for one patient for two to three weeks, depending on the dose required. Despite there being no regular transport to Bagdhad, WHO managed to send the shipment the same evening by taxi, ensuring delivery of the insulin within hours of the initial request. The WHO is sending larger supplies of insulin tomorrow.

Health for people at the “No man’s land” at the Jordan/Iraq border

Almost 960 people, including 300 children have gathered on a wind-swept, dusty patch of land in a “no man’s land” between Iraq and Jordan. WHO reports that people in this area are living in difficult conditions, with the constant wind sending dust and dirt into their eyes, hair and clothing. The people report respiratory problems, diarrhea, and skin conditions due to the harsh environment. MSF and Japan Platform NGO, OXFAM and Care are present in the area providing basic health and sanitation, water needs, as are the ICRC and WPF for food. In addition to coordinating the health care delivery, the WHO Sub office in Ruwhished is working to:

  • Coodinate, with partners including UNICEF and UNHCR, immunization for the children. This will include routine immunization, and measles vaccine for children aged six months to 15 years.
  • Help establish a health clinic which is staffed by MSF and Japan Platform.
  • Coordinate the health screening of all refugees moving from the no-man's land, to refugee camps in the area.
  • Provide environmental health expertise, including water quality control experts.

Pay for health staff the priority for Iraq

Over the last weeks, donations, including field hospitals, have been sent to Iraq. While donations to the health system are welcome, WHO believes that field hospitals are not as necessary in Iraq, where the health infrastructure is relatively good. The most recent survey shows that there were 1447 medical facilities throughout the country, including 160 hospitals (33 in Baghdad) and 1285 health centers. There are more than 26 000 hospitals beds, considered adequate for the population.

The most pressing requirements for the health system now is that health staff be given a daily allowance. Staff have been extremely dedicated to their work - coming to hospitals and health centres despite poor transportation, damaged facilities, and dwindling medicines and other supplies. However, without any kind of pay, they may have to look to other work in order to manage their daily lives, provide food and other necessities for their families.

WHO stresses that a minimum amount of funding - US$3,000 to US$5,000 per month for each hospital in Bagdhad for example - would be critical to ensuring that hospitals continue to operate, and health staff are able to continue working.

Basrah

WHO went on two missions to Basrah on the weekend to assess the health situation.

Overall, Basrah remains tense, and security is reported as unreliable. Electricity is generally available however, and the water supply is improving, though is still only available for six or seven hours per day. WHO is concerned for people who don’t have access to any piped water, as they are reportedly getting their water from the highly contaminated river.

Garbage and solid waste is building up, as most of the trucks and machines for waste collection were looted and destroyed. WHO is concerned that rodents and insect populations may get out of control as a result, further putting people’s health at risk. WHO was pleased to see however that all Basrah hospitals are functional and secure, and that more than half the staff are reporting to work.


For further information, please contact WHO spokespersons Fadela Chaib in Amman (00 4179 475 5556) 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)

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