UN humanitarian briefing in Amman, Jordan

Fadela Chaib, WHO spokeswoman

WHO posted an interesting background document on the health situation of the Iraqi population on its home web site. It's a compilation of health data on several issues going from child health to health facilities.

This is the web address: http://www.who.int/features/2003/iraq/breifings/iraq_briefing_note/en

Risks to health during conflict

Conflict will inevitably cause loss of lives, physical injuries, widespread mental distress, a worsening of existent malnutrition (particularly among children) and outbreaks of communicable diseases. Internally displaced and refugee populations are at particular risk. Common, preventable diseases such as diarrhea, threaten life. Chronic illnesses that can normally be treated lead to severe suffering. The dangers of pregnancy and childbirth are amplified.

If 10 000 Iraqi people are unable to access health care for one month, at least:

  • 30 children with diarrhea will not be treated
  • 55 children with respiratory infections will go untreated
  • 5 children with pneumonia will not receive life-saving antibiotics
  • 30 insulin-dependent diabetics will be unable to receive treatment
  • 150 pregnant women will not receive antenatal care
  • 20 pregnant women will deliver without trained assistance

The World Health Organization is continuing to prepare for a potential health crisis on three fronts: the resident Iraqi population, any outflow of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The health of the Iraqi population is generally poor: malnutrition is widespread, especially among children who are also prone to acute respiratory infections and diarrhea. Women, children, adolescents, the elderly, poor, disabled and chronically ill are particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks and other health risks.

WHO is leading the vital Health Coordination Group of the United Nations, which is preparing to support the health of the Iraqi people inside or outside the country in any humanitarian crisis. The Health Coordination Group is focusing mainly on the twin tasks of pre-positioning medical supplies and preparing teams of skilled experts to respond to any health emergency. Teams from WHO and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network are prepared to respond both to reports of disease outbreaks among people leaving Iraq, and to the ongoing need to support the health system inside the country.

It is estimated that there are already sufficient medical supplies in government warehouses to cover three months of normal consumption.

WHO, together with other United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations have also pre-positioned medicines and other health supplies in Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey. Many of these supplies are in the form of New Emergency Health Kits, which are designed to meet the health needs of a population of 10,000.

In refugee camps, WHO and its partners anticipate that there could be increases in cases of measles, meningitis, cholera, diarrhea, deaths of women during childbirth and complications arising from chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

In Iraq, vaccination rates are relatively low for diseases such as measles and meningitis. In the crowded and unsanitary conditions that are likely to exist in camps for refugees or Internally Displaced People, outbreaks of these diseases are even more likely. Within Iraq, any damage to the water or sanitation systems would also increase the risks of outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea disease.

Supporting health is a vital element in the effort to limit the impact of any humanitarian crisis on the Iraqi people.

WHO calls on all the parties to the conflict in Iraq to fully respect the neutrality of medical facilities and staff. WHO urges all the combatants not to attack medical facilities or to put the facilities or health workers in danger.

International law clearly protects medical facilities and staff as well as civilians and the medical and humanitarian they use. Supporting the health of the civilian population is a vital task and one must not in any way be deliberately endangered.

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