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Iraqi health care a shambles, doctors say

Basic equipment and supplies are unavailable, and doctors are fleeing.

By Joshua Partlow, Washington Post
Published February 10, 2008


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AMMAN, Jordan - Five years of war have disfigured the people of Iraq, doctors say, hobbling and maiming many thousands of them.

There are no definitive counts, but Health Minister Salih al-Hasnawi said the number of wounded Iraqi civilians is "of course" higher than the estimated 151,000 who died from violence in the first three years of the war, the figure given in a recent survey by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government.

"For any explosion, it is five to one, or seven to one, wounded to dead," Hasnawi said.

This statistic is worsened by a chronic lack of treatment, physicians say.

An Iraqi physician who now works in Amman with Doctors Without Borders and who asked that his name not be used because he feared for his safety, told the Washington Post that of the 100 resident doctors in his 2004 graduating class, only five remained in Iraq after a year.

"If patients are kept in a hospital there, they have a 90 percent chance of having a severe infection," he said. "There are no blood cultures. No proper swabs. Labs are basically working on the routine biochemistry tests. Microbiology is almost nonexistent there. Elective surgeries did become nonexistent. It's basically all trauma management."

A surgeon in the northern city of Mosul, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said hospitals have grown accustomed to handling a high volume of trauma cases, but not complex or lengthy procedures.

"Each patient gets no more than two hours maximum in surgery, because there is a long queue," he said.

"We end up with complications and infections. The patients might die two weeks after their operations."

Experienced doctors who left have been replaced by younger physicians.

Concerned about contaminated instruments and unsanitary rooms, they often pump patients full of antibiotics.

"The staff is not well trained, we don't have the new techniques of sterilization, our operating theaters are dirty," the Mosul surgeon said. "We can manage the quantity, but not with quality."

Emad Mahmoud al-Sheikh used to work in hotel administration in Mosul, but his company terminated his contract when it became clear he would not be able to return quickly from the gunshot wound he received while hailing a taxi in 2004. Once active and athletic, he now lies in traction in Amman, with a 14-pound bag of water attached to his leg to stretch the muscles.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," he said through tears. "I feel sorry for the thousands and thousands of Iraqis who are in the same position as I am. Thousands of Iraqis - and many are worse off than I am. What wrong have we committed?"

Sniper testifies

A weeping U.S. soldier said Saturday at his murder trial that he can't remember firing the gun that killed an Iraqi civilian who stumbled upon his hiding place. Sgt. Evan Vela and several of his fellow snipers described the confused scene and their own exhaustion in the May shooting. The defense rested Saturday in the court-martial in Iraq.

Turkey to fight on

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday his country will fight rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party in northern Iraq until a victory is achieved. "We can't stop this operation before the terror has ended," he told a security conference in Germany attended by hundreds of top officials.

Times wires

[Last modified February 10, 2008, 00:18:15]


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