WHO health briefing on Iraq

UN Humanitarian briefing
3 April 2003


WHO has received reports that on the night of Wednesday, April 2nd to Thursday, April 3rd, a hospital compound on the outskirts of Baghdad was badly damaged. The compound includes a maternity hospital, a surgical hospital, and the headquarters of the Iraq Red Crescent Society. No casualties were reported, since both hospitals and the Red Crescent building had been recently evacuated. However, outside the hospital 27 people were injured and three people died. This hospital is in a residential area, some 10 kilometres from Baghdad. This is the fourth confirmed report of damage to medical facilites during this conflict. Previously, a hospital in Basra was damaged, a primary health centre in Najaf was totally destroyed and a hospital in Nasiriya was damaged.

The World Health Organization urgently reminds all parties to the conflict in Iraq to fully respect the neutrality of medical facilities and staff. On March 25th, the Director General of WHO, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland said “Medical and humanitarian staff in Iraq ... must be protected from the impact of the conflict. I call on all those involved to avoid any and all attacks directed at health personnel."

There are also reports of increasing numbers of civilian casualties from this conflict. WHO reminds all parties of the need to respect the principles of humanitarian law. Civilians must be protected from the worst effects of conflict. Detailed information on civilian casualties is difficult to confirm. WHO is ready to help concerned authorities meet some of the most urgent medical needs, but continues to be hampered by a lack of humanitarian access to the affected populations.


A measles outbreak was reported in a village 20 km east of Suleymaniah, in the North of Iraq. The outbreak was confirmed by a team from the World Health Organization that included a paediatrician and an epidemiologist. At least 20 children between the ages of 6 and 15 are currently affected by the outbreak.

Measles is a highly infectious disease and one of the main causes of the high rate of infant mortality in Iraq. WHO and UNICEF are now considering measures including an emergency measles vaccination campaign. This would mean going from door to door in the surrounding villages to protect other children. However, since schools are currently closed, the risk of infection is smaller.

Between January and March of this year, 150 000 measles vaccines were shipped to the Northern Governorates and a routine vaccination campaign for children between 9 months and 5 years was carried out. Under normal circumstances this shipment would have been sufficient for the next 10 months. However, more measles vaccine is now needed for children between 6 and 15 who are at high risk of being infected.


Almost one week ago, the World Health Organization appealed for more than 300 million dollars to support the urgent health needs of the Iraqi people over the enxt six months, as part of a wider appeal from the United Nations. Health is a vital component of any emergency response, and yet so far WHO has received only 3 million dollars to tackle this growing health emergency. Other agencies are similarly underfunded. Unless more money is forthcoming to help tackle the health needs of the Iraqi people, children will die unnecessarily of diarrhoeal disease, women will die in childbirth and there will be a chronic shortage of medicines and other medical supplies in increasingly hard-pressed hospitals. Money is urgently needed and must be found immediately.

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)

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