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Iraq Health System Collapsed Under U.S. Occupation

Last Wednesday's four attacks in Baghdad, in which more than 200 people died, have highlighted how overstretched the country's emergency services are during major attacks, said doctors and emergency services workers.

"We were really desperate during the serious attacks on Wednesday [18 April] in the capital as most of the hundreds of injured people were taken to our hospital and we were unable to treat them because of the shortage in doctors, nurses, medicines and materials used in emergency operations," said Dr Ali Haydar Azize at Sadr City Hospital.

"Our supplies [of medicines] were finished in the middle of treating the injured people. Some of them had to be taken to another hospital to save their lives but if we were fully equipped with materials and staff, we would have been able to treat all of them," Azize added.

Iraqi hospitals are not equipped to handle high numbers of injured people at the same time because they depend on weekly deliveries of small quantities of medicines, said Azize.

The Ministry of Health said that while it has been sending supplies to every hospital in the capital and in other provinces, it does not have enough funds to fully stock medical stores.

"We will try to send extra medicines and materials to hospitals for emergency purposes but they [the hospitals] should be patient as the ministry lacks funds," Barak Muhammad, a spokesman in the Ministry of Health, said.

Doctors say such delays claim the lives of dozens of Iraqis every week. "Violence is increasing and emergencies are our daily reality. Some people died on Wednesday for lack of medicines and others because of a lack of staff."

"Violence is increasing and emergencies are our daily reality. Some people died on Wednesday for lack of medicines and others because of a lack of staff. Not enough doctors are left in Iraq and sometimes nurses have to step in and perform their [doctors'] duty to help save lives," Azize added.

For some time, doctors and emergency services workers in Iraq have been urging the government in Baghdad and NGOs to provide them more medical supplies to cover their needs during big bomb attacks in the country.

"We have constantly been explaining our situation to the concerned NGOs and the government but unfortunately the situation is worsening rather than improving," said Dr Ibraheem Ahmed, a physician at Yarmouk hospital, Baghdad's main emergency hospital.

"Most of the time we have to ask relatives to go to a nearby pharmacy and buy some medicines or even syringes to help save the lives of the injured. We are forced to use syringes for adults when we inject children because we lack the special needles used for children," he added.

Compounding the problem of limited medical supplies and doctors is a shortage of vehicles and equipment used by emergency services workers and diminishing numbers of the workers themselves.

Civil Defense Directorate (CDD) officials, who are in charge of Iraqi Fire Services, said that a shortage in fire trucks has prevented them from getting to emergencies quickly. And crucially for a fire-fighting service, there are no nationwide water distribution systems in Iraq.

CDD officials also said that they are short of essential equipment, such as mini-pumpers, auto-extrication tools, breathing apparatus, command cars and tow trucks. They add that very little of the available equipment works.

"Some trucks are lying in the garage waiting for repairs and this has decreased our capacity. On Wednesday, it was clear that the emergency systems in Iraq need to be improved but with lack of funds, civilians are the ones who pay for this situation," CDD officer Col. Youssef Ayad said.

Ayad added that armed groups sometimes steal or hijack fire trucks and ambulances and use them in bomb attacks.

The result is that the fire brigade is incapable of reaching incidents on time and incapable of effectively dousing fires at bomb blast scenes.

"Some people died [in Wednesday's attacks] because of fires rather than directly from the attacks. If it was in another country, their lives would have been saved," Fatah Ahmed, spokesman of Iraq Aid Association (IAA), said.

There is also a shortage of ambulances and ambulance drivers to transfer patients to hospitals during attacks. The emergency services often depend on civilians, who typically lack any medical knowledge, to transport the injured to nearby hospitals. Sometimes, by the time they reach hospitals the injured are dead simply because they were put in a car incorrectly, doctors say.

"Last Wednesday, we had to put five or six injured people in an ambulance at the same time because there were so many injured people and we only had three ambulances," said Abu Safwat, an ambulance driver in Baghdad. "Taxi drivers and private motorists started to help but with the streets closed and the crowded situation, by the time they reached the hospital, they were already dead."

"We need more ambulances and, importantly, they should be fully equipped," Abu Safwat added.

© IRIN 2007

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Albion Monitor   April 22, 2007   (

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