WHO health briefing on Iraq

UN humanitarian briefing
24 April 2003

In recent days, WHO has consistently highlighted the key needs for Iraq’s health system. These include security for staff, hospitals and health centres. They also include supplies – drugs, diagnostic kits, surgical supplies and oxygen cylinders. Underlying all of this is the need for water supply, electricity, and waste collection.

Today, WHO would like to highlight two other key issues for health in Iraq: operations costs for hospitals, and rejuvenation of the national laboratory surveillance system.

Funds needed to run hospitals

Funds to run Iraqi hospitals are quickly dwindling. There is almost no money to pay the staff, undertake maintenance, or pay for food and other essential services. Staff – now working essentially on a volunteer basis – can no longer even afford the cost of transport to and from work. As a temporary measure, WHO is therefore recommending an urgent grant to each Baghdad hospital of US$ 3000-5000 per month to allow these health facilities to continue to operate. Each hospital would form an emergency operation committee to manage, disburse and be accountable for the funds.

As part of WHO’s work to kick-start Iraq’s health system, WHO expects, as resources become available, to disperse funding for hospital operations costs in key centres throughout the country. WHO has already begun its work to re-establish the health system in Mosul and Kirkuk. These centres are facing similar funding shortages as those in Baghdad.

WHO's capacity to perform this work will depend on the extent to which it receives resources, as requested in the flash appeal issued 29 March 2003.

Re-establishing Iraq’s laboratory and surveillance system

WHO is also working quickly to help re-establish Iraq’s laboratory and disease surveillance system. The system, which includes watching out for, and then testing for illness is key to identifying disease outbreaks.

To this end, WHO and local health authorities have already done a great deal of work at the central Public Health Laboratory in Baghdad. We reported that this laboratory was recently looted. After further inspection, WHO can now report that the looters appear to have been interested in furniture and equipment, rather than their contents: all freezers, incubators, air conditioning units and furniture were gone. On the other hand, freezers’ and incubators’ contents – medical isolates and specimens – were abandoned throughout the laboratory and in the yard immediately surrounding the facility. WHO and Iraqi Department of Health staff have thoroughly cleaned these up and either destroyed or secured them.

WHO and Iraqi Department of Health staff – engineers, microbiologists and other technicians - can now concentrate further on re-establishing the country’s capacity to analyse blood samples and other specimens. But the reconstruction of the central public health laboratory will cost millions of dollars and WHO is urgently appealing to donors for additional assistance to speed up the re-establishment of Iraq's diagnostic support and surveillance capabilities. This is of the utmost priority as, until Iraq’s laboratories are functioning, samples must be sent either to Kuwait or Jordan. In the meantime, samples are being collected, and analysed from around the country. For example, more than 1000 stool samples were recently collected from diarrhoea cases in Kirkuk, and found to be negative for cholera. The laboratory assistance provided by the Kuwaiti and Jordanian authorities is greatly appreciated.

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)

Share