1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Iraq

Cancer cases increasing, doctors say

A bag hooked up to a metal pole on wheels delivers chemotherapy medicine to Sura Najim, 42, as she lies in a bed at the country's leading radiation hospital in the capital, Baghdad. Najim knows that later she will get sick and feel weak, unable to get out of bed. Right now, however, the college professor is calm - able to talk about the breast cancer she is trying to beat. Already, she has had surgery to remove the cancer in one breast and several courses of chemotherapy over the last four months to make sure it has not spread. "I discovered a mass in my body and went to the doctor," Najim told IRIN. "She discovered that it was malignant, so I had to have an operation." Iraq's health care system seems able to handle its cancer patients at the moment, Dr Thikra Najim, a specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics, told IRIN. But the number of cases appears to be rising rapidly, especially for breast cancer, Najim said. It's unclear why this is, although it could be because of radiation left over from the 1991 Gulf War, she added. "Now we're seeing three or four cases every week. I think the number is increasing," Najim said. "This is disastrous. We have to study it." In fact, doctors are now seeing many more cases of cancer in general. About 4,000 patients per year used to come through the doors of the radiation hospital in Baghdad. So far this year they have seen about 7,000 patients, Dr Ahmed Abdul Jabhar, deputy director of the hospital, told IRIN. Cancers in the patients streaming through the hospital's doors each day appear to be unrelated to each other, Jabhar said, reading from the hospital's entry log. One patient has a cancerous tumour in his mouth; another has a lump in her breast; a third has brain cancer. In addition, leukaemia (a form of bone marrow cancer marked by an increase in white blood cells) cases appear to be increasing in southern Iraq, Jabhar said. Gastro-intestinal tumours and thyroid problems also seem to be increasing in the centre of the country, he noted. "We don't know if the rise is because there actually are more cases, or because of new diagnosis capabilities available to us," Jabhar said. Doctors in recent months have noticed an increase in a variety of radiation-related diseases, but few reliable statistics exist. A cancer department at the Ministry of Health has only this year's statistics for example, making it impossible to compare what's happening now to what has happened in the past. In general, however, it takes more than 20 years for people to get sick through radiation-related diseases after they have been exposed, Jabhar said. But such diseases can progress more rapidly if the exposure is higher. Children can also be more vulnerable - and the number of cases of childhood leukaemia has risen in the last few years. "More people seem to have cancer, but I was very surprised when I found out I had it," Iman Rubi Mohammed, 44, told IRIN, as she waited for treatment for cancer of the cervix in the radiology room of the hospital. She said she went to the doctor after getting sharp pains in her abdomen. Now there is a two-to-three month waiting list to be treated by the radiology machines, Jabhar said, because the number of patients is increasing. Doctors also treat cancer with hormone therapy, he said, and they're always worried that they will run out of drugs. In Tuwaitha, 18 km south of Baghdad, where nuclear research went on for years, many residents appear to have suffered some ill effects, Bushra Ali Ahmed, director of the Radiation Protection Centre in Baghdad, told IRIN. Of 4,000 residents who had their blood tested in five villages surrounding Tuwaitha, about 2,000 were found to have higher than normal white blood cell counts, Ahmed said. She is also testing the blood of at least 10 residents in Baghdad to use them as a control group. "We can't say it's from radiation, but their immunity is lower," Ahmed said. "Radiation can come from many things. There are many sources of contamination in Iraq now." Ahmed has just finished a Ministry of Environment study about pollution in Iraq. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is starting a US $4.7 million pilot project to investigate environment "hot spots" and help with cleaning them up, ranging from chemical spills to oil discharges. UN workers will help Iraq reduce pollution threats to human health, wildlife and the wider environment, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director, said in a statement. "It's not good to say something about this until you know for sure where the contamination is coming from," Ahmed said. "We need more machines and materials to study this."

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

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.