US Fails to Fulfill Obligation to Support Health Care System in Iraq, Posing Threat to Health of Iraqi People

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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Washington, DC/Baghdad, May 2, 2003 - The United States-led coalition has failed to meet its responsibility under international humanitarian law to ensure that the health and well-being of the Iraqi people is being provided for, the international medical humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stated today. Urgent medical needs are not being addressed, and disorganization in hospitals is posing a threat to the health of people in Iraq. MSF again demands that the US-led coalition, as the occupying power, immediately fulfill its obligation to provide for the medical needs of the Iraqi people, which it has thus far not done.

"Despite three weeks of the US occupation and many months of planning for this war, Baghdad, a city the size of Houston and Chicago combined, still does not have any fully functioning hospitals," said Morten Rostrup, MD, MSF International Council President, who has just returned from 6 weeks in Baghdad. "Disorder and political struggles in Baghdad and elsewhere have left the health system in disarray at a time when the recent bombings, that included the use of cluster bombs, and ongoing hostilities, including injuries to civilians, make access to health care all the more critical."

The US has given priority to efforts and concerns in building administration, forgetting to organize immediate assistance to the wounded. It has also failed to provide timely security for hospitals and medical staff. In Baghdad, hospitals are filthy, many were looted, and no proper emergency transport system is in place. People wounded in the war who fled, or were discharged from hospitals during the anarchy of the first days of US occupation, had little idea of where to go to receive follow-up treatments for their often serious injuries, including amputations. And, since hospitals are still not fully functioning, patients continue to be discharged early. Those who suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and epilepsy have nowhere to refill their medications. Iraqi doctors and nurses still have not been paid. In the hospitals that MSF has visited in Baghdad and other parts of the country, including Amarah, Basrah, Karbala, Nasariya and elsewhere, life-threatening illnesses, such as tuberculosis and kala azar, are going untreated due to lack of medicines.

MSF has attempted to fill the gaps in medical assistance in Baghdad and elsewhere by providing medicines, supplies, and assistance where necessary, but power struggles, a lack of plans to attend to immediate health needs, and an absence of clear lines of authority in Iraqi hospitals and the health system as a whole is posing the greatest challenge to health in the country.

"Fortunately, MSF teams in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq have not yet detected signs of epidemics, large displacements of people, or acute malnutrition that would constitute a major disaster on the scale of what we are witnessing elsewhere in the world today," stated Dr. Rostrup. "Nevertheless, there are important, unaddressed health needs, and any further delay in reestablishing essential medical services is costing lives and heightening the risk that epidemics and other health problems may arise."

MSF currently has 30 international aid workers in Iraq and surrounding countries and is carrying out assessments in all major cities, including Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Tikrit, Nasariya, and Mossul, to determine the needs and to provide medical assistance where necessary.