Insecurity facing health staff, patients and supplies, shortages of clean water and electricity, as well as of cash to meet hospital running costs and expenses, are problems needing urgent attention all over Iraq, aid workers and health professionals have told IRIN. Insecurity is also deterring foreign NGOs and UN agencies from entering Iraq to provide the ailing health sector with emergency support.
Some medical professionals who have remained in the capital, Baghdad, have been arming themselves and living in hospitals in an effort to defend them. Doctors having to engage in physical fights with looters were "terrified" and "begging for safety for themselves and the hospitals", Moustafa Osman of Islamic Relief told IRIN on Wednesday after visiting several hospitals over the weekend in Baghdad.
"Patients were lying in the corridors, on the steps at the entrance, lying on the bare ground," he said, adding that the hospital security guards had fled. "They were scared and they had nothing to stay for."
Wade Hudson of the Iraqi Peace Team, who was in Baghdad for the duration of the war to witness events, told IRIN: "Government records, including vital statistics, were being burned. It will make it very difficult to know how many people have died." The hospitals were burying corpses in their grounds without having been able to identify them.
Rising temperatures, sanitation problems and lack of clean water in many parts of the country may also lead to outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease. One area of Baghdad had reportedly been flooded by contaminated water, presenting a further health risk, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday.
NGOs are still largely unable to bring humanitarian supplies to Iraq due to insecurity and lack of water and electricity. Osman told IRIN that every day in Baghdad he had met between one and three NGO staff or journalists who had been robbed on their way to the city, mostly in Ramadi, 80 km west of the capital on the main road from Jordan and Baghdad. "They point a gun at you, stop you and you hand over what you have," he said. Sometimes they even commandeered vehicles. "They are not professional gangs," he noted, "they are just taking a chance."
He advised aid workers to postpone assessment trips to Baghdad for another week or so as there were only three functioning and secured hotels there, all of which were absolutely full, he said. With no electricity, no communications, and only very limited drinking water, and all the available accommodation crowded with journalists, he said, there was effectively nowhere to stay in the city.
Even before the war, medical facilities in Iraq were stretched, with an estimated 1.5 beds per 1,000 Iraqis, coupled with shortages of medicine and equipment. Moreover, many health professionals had fled the country.
The situation in northern Iraq was not much better, with hospitals in the northern governorate of Kirkuk still largely inaccessible due to the potential danger of reaching them, a WHO representative told journalists.
WHO officials had found only 40 patients in the 400-bed Azadi Hospital (formerly Saddam General Hospital), all with minor or moderate injuries, said a WHO spokeswoman, Melanie Zipperer, adding that both patients and health staff deemed it "unsafe" to go there.
On top of the widespread vandalism and looting in the city preventing people from leaving their homes, Zipperer said that "in the current circumstances the chances of survival for anyone with a serious injury were very low".
Between 50 percent and 70 percent of the Azadi Hospital's staff were absent from work, because most of them had not been paid, and there appeared to be no system in place to pay them for the month of April, she said. Other hospitals in the city - a maternity and a children's hospital - were running at about 25 percent of their capacity, she added.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed that many armed looters were still operating in Kirkuk, with most shops being forced to close, streets emptied and all government buildings and many industrial facilities being looted and burned.
The ICRC said shortages of iodine, painkillers, chest tubes and local anesthetics had been reported in the Al-Tamim General Hospital in Kirkuk, which is a key hospital for war-related injuries.
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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions