By Craig Cormick
An independent US medical team has found that 170,000 Iraqi children may die this year from the delayed effects of the Gulf War.
A study team from Harvard University, which toured Iraq in April and May, found that malnutrition was widespread there were epidemics of cholera, typhoid and gastroenteritis.
The study, the first comprehensive survey of public health in postwar Iraq, found that, contrary to claims by the Iraqi government and Western media, the health situation is not improving but is desperate and deteriorating.
Mortality rates among children were found to be particularly high, and an estimated 170,000 children under five years old would die this year as a direct result of the war. According to the team, this represents a 100% increase in child mortality.
To put the figures in perspective, 170,000 dead children is higher than the initial figures, released in March, of total Iraqi and allied deaths in the war — 100,000 and 166 respectively.
The team found a high incidence of severe malnutrition among children, including marasmus and kwashiorkor. This was caused mainly by acute food shortages which are so severe that the team indicated the real possibility of famine if food relief is not available soon.
The report also said that epidemics of water-borne diseases, such as the cholera, typhoid and gastroenteritis they had witnessed, were likely to increase in the warmer summer months.
Almost immediately after the war, in March, Martti Ahtisaari, the under-secretary-general of the United Nations, toured Iraq and reported the civilian population could face that major health problems if basic infrastructures such as water and power were not provided.
He found diarrhoeal diseases were increasing even then, and called for the provision of essential drugs and vaccines, and the restoration of power to ensure that health centres could function.
In his report to the UN, he said, "Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and transport".
He also said, "... a catastrophe could be faced at any time if conditions do not change".
The Harvard team found that conditions have changed very little, if at all.
The team said it travelled to all major cities throughout Iraq and was able to conduct its research without Iraqi government interference and with virtually unlimited access to the medical facilities in every region. The report said there had been a breakdown of Iraq's medical system, with acute shortages of medicine, equipment and staff. "The state of medical care is desperate, and unless conditions substantially change [they] will continue to deteriorate in every region and at nearly every provider level."
The team also had access to water purification, sewage treatment and electrical power plants. Iraq is generating only about 20% of the electricity it generated before the war; this was the principal cause of the deterioration in public health.
"Without electricity water cannot be purified, sewage cannot be treated, water-borne diseases flourish, and hospitals cannot treat curable illness", the report said.
The team also reported that, despite a brief period of recuperation after the war, a significant number of medical facilities have now closed — in some areas as high as 50%.