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Sunday, 3 February, 2002, 00:04 GMT
Mercy mission to save ailing Kurds
Cancer rates among the Kurds have increased dramatically
A doctor from Liverpool is spearheading an ambitious campaign to meet the health needs of millions of Kurds in Northern Iraq.

They are suffering a range of illnesses, including cancers, linked to the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Professor Christine Gosden is driven by selfless determination to ensure they should not become a "forgotten people" and the extent of their suffering is not overlooked.

Her task is made more difficult because Iraqi officials have issued a death threat should she try to enter the country.

Mustard gas burns require skin grafts, but there are no experts with the experience of doing skin or corneal transplants

Professor Christine Gosden
So her work is done by proxy and she has begun a routine of bringing Iraqi doctors secretly to the UK, where they receive basic training on how to deal with the Kurds' medical complications.

After a fortnight here, they return to Iraq to help carry out her mission, but with virtually no medical supplies and out-of-date equipment, they have a huge mountain to climb.

Professor Gosden said: "There is very little medical provision in the country because it's under sanctions.

"Doctors have no chemotherapy or radiation therapy in Northern Iraq and there is not one oncologist.

"What do you do for mustard gas blindness?

"We need ophthalmologists who can treat them, but they need replacement corneas and in a Muslim country, they won't take corneas from dead bodies.

"Mustard gas burns require skin grafts, but there are no experts with the experience of doing skin or corneal transplants."

Mystery cocktail

The legacy of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons assault is a five-to-ten fold increase in cancers and a higher than average incidence of miscarriages, stillbirths and baby deaths.

She said the perinatal mortality rate (the period immediately before and after birth) is 200 per thousand in Northern Iraq. In the UK it is six per thousand.

She claims weapons of mass destruction (WMD) included irradiated zirconium bombs, mustard gas and nerve gas.

However, the exact composition of the chemical cocktail is not known because no-one has been in to Northern Iraq to carry out tests.

Women and children are a priority
UN organisations have respected the sovereignty of the Iraqi government, saying they cannot test attack sites until they are invited in.

This has hampered Professor Gosden's work.

She is not sure if it is safe for medical experts to operate in the area because of the remaining health threat from WMD fallout.

She also questions whether Saddam Hussein is still using WMD.

Also, there is no way of assessing how much radiation the Kurds have been exposed to already and therefore whether any radiation therapy would help or hinder their condition.

Professor Gosden's main priority is women and children.

'Jigsaw' puzzle

Breast cancer rates are vast and there is evidence men and women have been rendered sterile by WMD.

She said: "But if people are told they can't have children, in a Muslim society, they are unmarriageable.

"I have a giant jigsaw puzzle on what I can and can't say."

Despite the many headaches and uncertainties, medical supplies are getting through, although she is reluctant to reveal exactly how, to protect her vulnerable sources.

The lifting of sanctions might make things easier, but that is not what she is advocating.

Innocent victims of Saddam's regime
She is however in negotiations with the US and UK governments to look at ways of making the sanctions work more effectively.

Of the death threat, she is cavalier, but resilient.

She said: "I'm sure I'm a thorn in their flesh and I'm sure they would like to get rid of me, but I don't think it should inhibit me from working."

Her task relies on donations and government grants and when she is not co-ordinating the campaign, Professor Gosden is involved in an international fund-raising effort for essential humanitarian aid.

It is a demanding role and one which she combines with her day job as Professor of Medical Genetics at Liverpool Women's Hospital.

But she would not have it any other way.

Any obstacles in her path, merely strengthen her resolve and she will not give up until her mission is accomplished.

See also:

31 Aug 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds face uncertain future
05 Sep 01 | Middle East
Kurds alarm over 'smart sanctions'
02 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds fear new Islamist group
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