Letter from Iraq: The Children's Ward

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Zainab is 40 days old and has spent her entire life at the Basra hospital. After all this time, her doctors think she just might pull through because she now weighs four and a half pounds. But even if she survives, her future is bleak. Zainab was born with underdeveloped limbs. Her mother Nazad says she knew the reason as soon as her newborn daughter was shown to her. "It is because my womb is poisoned," she said, rocking the tightly wrapped bundle of her child. "The baby became sick and came out early."

Doctors have a different explanation, but Nazad's reasoning is close enough. Her family lives in Al Zubair, a town on Iraq's border with Kuwait. This area was heavily bombed during the Gulf War. According to the U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute, more than 900,000 depleted uranium tipped bullets were fired. When they exploded, say experts, toxic substances were released in the ground and air, and after four or five years, entered the food chain, affecting human lives. Gulf War syndrome has been reported in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even among American soldiers on the ground. (Washington denies that the illnesses are caused by depleted uranium.) The Iraqi government has noted a remarkable increase in cancer, reduced fertility, miscarriages and children born with congenital defects. In the southern Basra province, multiple congenital malformation cases have shot up from 37 in 1990 to 301 in 2002. "We have a generation of children that are going to die too soon," says Dr. Jnana Ghalib Hassan, Zainab's pediatrician. "First the Americans poisoned our land, and now we are being denied medicines to help these people."

Dr. Hassan stalks through the cancer ward of the Basra hospital where several children lie hooked up to intravenous drips. She shows hideous photographs of damaged children, many of them little more than lumps of meat. Those did not make it, but there are plenty that would survive if only they had some medication. But these are poor people and cannot afford medicines. Cancer drugs, for instance, fall under the dual use category and are listed under UN sanctions. So, although medical services are highly subsidized in Iraq, these children can have no treatment. Leukemia patients are given a blood transfusion and discharged. Other cancers are treated symptomatically. Everything is available in Iraq, even medicines, but come at a heavy price in the black market. A drug that the in the states would sell for around $80 U.S. can cost up to $80,000. "I know these children are going to die," says Dr Hassan. "But I don't say anything. I just send them home."

It's not just a shortage of drugs that is hurting the Iraqi medical system. Dr. Murtada Hussan, Deputy Director of the Al Mansur Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad says that supporting facilities like ventilation, sewage disposal and elevators have disappeared because of a shortage of spares. And Iraq's doctors, once considered the best in the Arab world, no longer have access to advances in medical science because they have no books, no Internet connections and barely any money to attend international conferences. "They say we use everything for weapons," he says bitterly. "But everything has a dual use. Even a kitchen knife can cut vegetables or kill someone."

Yasmin brought her 12-year-old son Ahmed to Baghdad hoping that there were more medicines in the capital than in the local hospital in southern Iraq. But Owaid, who has blood cancer, is not getting any better. He has clots in his eyes and his lips are bleeding. Yasmin says that many kids in her village are falling sick. Most of them have the same symptoms: fever and pain in their joints because of swollen lymph nodes. Dr.Hussan walks past rows of sick beds, talking to desperate parents and their children. "All these patients are the same," he says. "They are all victims of the war."