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Health concerns mounting

Aid organisations and the United Nations have highlighted the serious health situation Iraqis are facing as conflict continues country-wide, IRIN learnt on Friday. The UN World Health Organisation (WHO) said without an immediate inflow of money there would be unnecessary deaths of Iraqi children of diarrhoea-related diseases, women would die in childbirth, and there would be a chronic shortage of medicines and supplies in already overstretched hospitals.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO executive director for emergencies and humanitarian action, told IRIN from Geneva that the organisation had requested US $300 million for urgent health needs in Iraq over the next six months, but had only received $3 million so far. He described the Iraqis as "much more vulnerable than just about any other population in the world".

Nabarro highlighted the accelerating collapse of the state health system, a lack of water and electricity in many parts of the country, and increasing civilian casualties and suffering. "Now, add that together and it's not good." He said every day the war continued, people were dying unnecessarily. This was not just from shooting, mines or accidents, but because people couldn't get the basic health care they needed. "The longer this war goes on and paralyses systems in south and central Iraq, the more people are going to suffer, and we say to the world, 'don't forget it.'"

His comments have been backed up by several aid organisations working in Iraq, which warn that current health services are being stretched to the limit. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) medical coordinator for Iraq, Gerard Bise, told IRIN from Geneva that the situation in many hospitals was becoming critical, as wounded people arrived for treatment.

Until now, hospitals in the southern city of Basra and the capital, Baghdad, had managed to cope with the crisis despite being short of some materials such as general anaesthetic supplies. But Bise said these shortages could worsen, particularly in Baghdad, with a predicted influx of patients. ICRC staff had been restricted in their movements by the war, and getting information on the needs of the people was not always possible.

"We fear, of course, as everybody, what is happening in other towns where we are not [present]," Bise said. Because of the war, no aid agencies had been able to get into the central towns of Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriyah or Hillah, where ICRC believed the hospitals were having difficulty coping with casualties from the fighting.

The Care International spokesman, Alykhan Rajani, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman, that there was great concern that health problems would escalate as the war dragged on. "Iraq has really been in a humanitarian crisis long before the war began," he said.

Rajani went on to say that Care had 60 staff in Iraq, mainly in Baghdad, providing for the health and food needs of the people. It had managed to carry on distributing some aid, but with power cuts and water supply failures, he predicted these needs could increase rapidly. "This already is a humanitarian emergency, and the potential for it to become a humanitarian catastrophe is quite serious." Getting vital aid supplies into Iraq was touch-and-go for many agencies at the moment, Rajani said. "There needs to be more and more a focus on the Iraqi people and how this war affects them."

Andrea Hilger of Architects for People in Need, a German NGO working in Baghdad, predicted that the food and health situation of Iraqis in the capital would become "really, really severe" within a week. Her organisation had distributed food and medical supplies, but its stocks would not last more than a couple of weeks, she told IRIN from Amman.

She called on the international community to realise the urgent health needs of the Iraqis and provide money for aid. "I don't know, I think the donor community needs cruel pictures - like people killing or dead - then they give a donation. But by then it's too late."

Nabarro said aid resources were needed now and that humanitarian issues of civilians had to be put at the centre of any thinking by those involved in the war. "This war is being fought in order, we hear, to create a better life for the people of Iraq... If in the process of the war thousands or even hundreds of thousands have their lives wrecked, then that's a pretty poor commentary on what's going on." He said the war and discussion of it should focus on how the people of Iraq were faring.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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