On January 26, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported an increase in cases of encephalitis — a viral disease that causes swelling of the brain — among children in Baghdad over the preceding two weeks.
"We have diagnosed 10 cases of encephalitis over the last two weeks", Uday Abdel Rada, a senior doctor in the emergency ward of Baghdad's Central Teaching Hospital, told the UNOCHA's IRIN information service.
If left untreated, encephalitis causes long-term mental disorders. The virus is spread from droplets, such as saliva, or from blood.
Rada said it has been hard to treat the virus given the poor condition of Iraqi medical infrastructure after the US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein's Baathist government on April 9.
"We need to isolate the virus and have a greater supply of oxygen", Rada said. "But it is very difficult to diagnose the outbreak at this point because we don't have the necessary material.
"You can see the children here. There is much suffering among them. No one seems to be helping them. We have been to the ministry of health for assistance and to the Americans. We have received nothing so far."
Iraqi hospitals have been chronically short of medicines since the overthrow of the Baathist government, and what medicines are available have massively increased in price. According to a January 22 IRIN report, it is not unusual for patients to have to pay 30 times what they paid under the Baathist regime for their medicines.
"Under the former regime", IRIN noted, "health care, including medicine, was almost completely subsidised by the government. Patients paid less than a dollar to visit a doctor. Medicine cost only a few cents more. Much of the medicine is imported from Jordan through Kimadia, the state-run drug company. Other drugs are made at Kimadia's main factory, which is not running at the moment."
"Patients with diseases like epilepsy or diabetes can die without regular medication", Faisal Abdul Jabar Hashi, general director of the 700 or so public clinics in Iraq, told IRIN, estimating more than 30,000 patients in Iraq required some sort of regular medication.
Distribution problems have popped up many times over recent years, but never as bad as they are now, according to Dr Nima Abed, director of preventive health care at the Iraq ministry of health.
With an estimated 60% unemployment rate, many families now are selling valuable items in their homes just to be able to afford to pay for a few months of medicine, he explained.
"At a private clinic, you might pay more than 10 times more than you would at the public clinic for 10 tablets of a drug. It's a very big problem", Abed told IRIN, adding that for some patients, doctors can prescribe similar but less costly medicine, or a lower dose.
Qasim Ali Abid, chief resident doctor at the same hospital, explained that the leading cause of death among his patients was from secondary infections caught while undergoing in-patient treatment. Hospital statistics put the secondary infection rate at 80% — a staggering rate for a Middle Eastern country like Iraq.
A prime cause, Dr Abid said, is open sewage on the premises mixing with drinking water:
"There is sewage blocking the pipes. It is now in the water supply."
Rubble from pre-war maintenance also remains inside the building and there are only two toilets per floor of the four-floor building — used by patients, nurses, doctors and family members. Iraqi hospitals have been chronically short of medical supplies, trained doctors and money since the toppling of Saddam Hussein on April 9 last year.
From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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