Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Healthcare Woes

A shortage of staff, equipment, and medical supplies is crippling the local health-care system.
Being diagnosed with an illness is a nightmare in Iraq, as we dread hearing that the medicine and services we need aren’t available.

Five years have passed since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the health sector continues to deteriorate daily - eating away at the dignity of people.

The country is in the midst of a healthcare catastrophe, one that requires the attention of the authorities and citizens.

Hospitals lack medicines, supplies and beds. Patients who want to have their blood pressure checked have to bring their own equipment. A woman who wants to have her child vaccinated has to find a “wasta” - which translates roughly as a connection - through friends or relatives who work in the health sector, as even this service is limited.

Iraq’s health-care system “is in disarray”, the British medical advocacy group Medact wrote in a recent report. The problems aren’t only due to poor security, the organisation maintained, but are exacerbated by massive staff shortages, intermittent electricity, an unsafe water supply and “frequent violations of medical neutrality”.

“The ministry of health and the local health authorities are mostly unable to meet these huge challenges, while the activities of [United Nations] agencies and nongovernmental organisations are restricted,” noted Medact.

Take, for example, the Hepatitis B outbreak at Al-Yarmook hospital in 2005, the memory of which continues to stir fear among Baghdad’s ill.

"I get depressed [going to the hospital],” said Emad Saad, 47, from Baghdad, who has kidney problems. “I’d rather die than deal with the poor treatment in hospitals and the long waiting time. I worry about what happened three years ago [in Al-Yarmook hospital].”

For Mahmood Abdullah, a 30-year-old labourer who suffers back pain, paying for medical care is a huge concern. He could not afford the 250,000 Iraqi dinars (210 US dollars) it costs for an X-Ray in a private clinic.

“Money equals health in Iraq,” he said.

Iraq’s health inspection unit was corrupt during the former regime, but today it doesn’t exist.

Doctors do not have access to the latest medical research, and many have left the country after they were targeted by religious extremists and criminal gangs. Those who remain are sometimes mistreated by the police, the military and even by patients who blackmail them.

The lack of doctors, the random opening hours of medical centres and rising medical costs are all hurting patients. Medact estimates that up to 75 per cent of doctors, pharmacists and nurses have left their jobs since 2003, and over half have abandoned the country, despite rising levels of expenditure on health provision.

Much of the funds fail to reach those they are intended for because of corruption, which is something that must be addressed.

The government needs to play a more active role in looking after its people, whether through the provision of better health care or the quality-control testing of imported goods. We need more support for our basic needs, particularly health care. The ministry of health must do better to regain the confidence it has lost.

Zainab Naji is an IWPR correspondent in Baghdad.

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