Raghed Sarmad, 32, and her two children, aged seven and eight, spend their days scavenging through piles of rubbish in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in search of anything they can sell for food. She prefers medical waste, because there is a greater chance of finding items of some value.
Sarmad is oblivious to the numerous diseases they could catch by handling such waste.
“There isn’t much blood in the rubbish [so it’s safe]. We find some good metal things which we can sell in the market. Some people buy syringes with needles from us. I don’t think the needles can harm us because they must have been sterilized already,” Sarmad told IRIN while rummaging through medical waste left near the main gate of Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital.
“I need to eat and can’t find a job. My husband was killed three years ago, leaving me alone with three children to look after. We can sell some things we find in dumps and then at least get something to eat,” she added.
Many hospitals in Baghdad leave their medical waste for collection at their main gates. They used to burn this waste, but no longer do so because of a lack of fuel. Compounding this health hazard is the fact that insecurity has led dwindling numbers of refuse collectors to work ever more sporadically.
“Rubbish collectors are being targeted because of their sects. Many workers have refused to collect rubbish in areas where they have been threatened,” said Khudar Nuridin, media officer at the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works in Baghdad, adding that at least 15 workers had been killed in recent months while collecting rubbish in the capital.
|Bacterial or viral infections can be easily contracted from the waste disposed by hospitals and clinics.|
Doctor Jamal Kamel, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Infectious Diseases Control Centre in Baghdad, told IRIN that the accumulation of medical waste poses a serious hazard to those who come in contact with it.
“Poor people searching for stuff in rubbish that can be recycled or sold do not know what they can contract in dumps. Bacterial or viral infections can be easily contracted from the waste disposed by hospitals and clinics,” Kamel said, adding that medical waste disposal had become a problem throughout the country.
Officials at the Ibn Sina Hospital in the northern city of Mosul, 390km north of Baghdad, said there had rubbish had not been collected for more than a week and that poor people had been going through plastic bags of medical waste.
“The hospital lacks medicines and professionals but it is also short of essential materials like fuel used for burning the waste… We don’t have enough fuel to do it because we need it for the electric generator,” Dirar Mashhaddany, Ibn Sina Hospital media officer, said.
“We had cases of bacterial infections among four children who were in contact with waste from hospitals and houses over the past two months,” he added.
In Sadr City, one of the largest suburbs of Baghdad, barefooted children play near sewage and waste dumps.
“Over the past year, dozens of children have ended up in our emergency rooms with symptoms of infectious diseases due to contact with waste - some from hospital waste. Poverty is the main cause, but lack of awareness is aggravating the problem,” Haydar Khouri, a pediatrician at Sadr City Hospital, said.
|Over the past year, dozens of children have ended up in our emergency rooms with symptoms of infectious diseases due to contact with waste - some from hospital waste.|
Ali Hassan, a 9-year-old resident of Sadr City, is a regular at the hospital’s waste dump.
“We find very nice things to play with in the hospital rubbish. We find syringes, cotton and empty bottles. Once we found a fetus - that was amazing! We play like we’re doctors. My mother always tells me to train well because one day I could be a good doctor,” said Ali.