WHO health briefing on Iraq
27 March 2003 - The World Health Organization team in Iraq is working intensively to keep the health system in the country functioning. Working with the national authorities, WHO teams are distributing medicines and other medical supplies in northern Iraq. WHO is offering support to the public heatlh system wherever it is required. Finally, WHO has a team which is seeking permits to travel from Baghdad to Basra to assist with the potential public health emergency in Iraq's second largest city. Currently, there is little information on the humanitarian situation in Basra. WHO staff continue to believe that the health of the population is under serious threat from the lack of access to safe, clean drinking water. For now, the authorities have reported no outbreaks of communicable disease in the city. However, the WHO rapid response team is ready to assess the situation and respond to any health problems in the city. For now, the security situation does not allow travel to the city but we hope this will change very soon.
WHO staff in the capital report that the continuing bombardment is beginning to have a serious impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of the population, particularly children and other vulnerable groups (pregnant women, the elderly and disabled). The bombardment makes it extremely difficult for medical staff to get to those who may need medical assistance, including women in labour. It also means that people who need medical help are unable or unwilling to seek it because of the potential danger. WHO direct contact in Iraq has established that for now, there are no disease outbreaks in Baghdad or the surrounding areas, and that hospitals in and around the capital have not so far reported any lack of medical supplies or staff.
Neutrality of medical facilities
There have been a number of reports of medical facilities being damaged or being used defensively. While it is impossible to independently verify these reports, the World Health Organization reminds all participants in this conflict of their obligations to respect and maintain the neutrality of medical facilities and health workers.
WHO staff in the northern governorates have organised a number of rapid health assessments among people who have left their homes in and around the city of Suleiymaniyah. These teams are working with the local health authorities to respond to reports of possible outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections among these populations. WHO has also been working to strengthen the capacity of local health facilities, particularly through deliveries of medicines and other supplies. WHO has also been working to improve the surveillance system in the local community. This is vital so that outbreaks of disease can rapidly be identified and treated.
For further information, please contact WHO spokespersons Fadela Chaib in Amman (00 4179 475 5556) or Iain Simpson in Geneva (00 4179 475 5534)
The following WHO specialists are available to respond to media questions:
Dr G 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)