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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April 2003, 05:09 GMT 06:09 UK
Iraq's cancer children overlooked in war
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online, in Nasiriya

Munther and father
Munther's treatment stopped when war started
With Iraq's hospitals in disarray, the long-term sick are being passed over in a frantic effort to treat emergency cases. For the thousands of young leukaemia victims, the outlook is bleaker than ever.

There are countless children ahead of Munther in the queue for medical help in Iraq.

The seven-year-old is not suffering from one of the conditions associated with the war, such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia or shrapnel wounds. He has acute lymphatic anaemia, also known as leukaemia.

It is a deadly disease - a cancer of the white blood cells - and if Munther is not treated he will die but the war has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the young boy, from Nasiriya, in southern Iraq.

Medicine containers
All empty: His medicines have run out
Munther has been unable to travel the 230 miles to Baghdad for his monthly treatment session at a specialist cancer care hospital, where he receives chemotherapy drugs injected into the spine and intravenously.

Safety has been a concern for Munther's father, Yahia al-Abbas, who has always gone with his son on trips to the capital. While there is still lawlessness, Mr Abbas is reluctant to venture far from home, although he believes the security situation is starting to ease.

More critical is that the hospital in Baghdad which looks after Munther was pillaged by looters in the wake of the fighting and is today barely functioning. Also, supplies of some cancer-treatment drugs have run out in recent weeks as Iraqi border controls have tightened and distribution networks have seized up.

Munther's medicine dried up a week ago and no-one knows if, or when, new supplies will be available.

We're doing all we can just to concentrate on infections and some curable diseases

Dr Abdul Ghaffar Al-Shadood
"I've been to the American [military] hospital in Nasiriya and the Red Cross for help but they only handle first aid and they can't do anything," says Mr Abbas.

"My son's in bad health at the moment. He has vomiting, fever, anaemia and a suppressed immunity.

"I'm praying that the Americans and British and other countries will help Iraq's sufferers of chronic disease. My worry is that my son could die because of what happened. Because of this, I see a dark future for my family."

It's a story that is being repeated across Iraq, as cancer sufferers and others who are critically ill and in need of regular treatment, are passed over in the post-war rush to treat medical emergencies.

Mothers with drips for children
Hospitals are directing resources at emergency cases
"People come up to me many times a day asking for cancer drugs," says Dr Mary McLoughlin, based in Nasiriya with the humanitarian agency Goal. "I'm aware that many of these people will die because the emphasis at the moment is on primary healthcare."

Leukaemia, which affects blood and bone marrow, used to be relatively rare in Iraq. According to the former health ministry, cases of the cancer increased fourfold after the first Gulf War and many have blamed the use of depleted uranium munitions used by the allied forces in that conflict.

Even before the war, cancer patients had to rely on black market supplies to bolster medicines available through the state.

After Munther was diagnosed with leukaemia 14 months ago, Mr Abbas started to secure some drugs through unofficial channels, mostly with lorry drivers going to Jordan or Syria.

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At up to $100, the price was prohibitive for Mr Abbas, who used to earn $40 a month as a department head at Nasiriya's technical college, until the war started. He has not been paid in two months.

Family, friends and religious associates used to help out with the cost, and Munther always received the treatment he needed, says his father.

At Nasiriya's Women's and Paediatric hospital, which is functioning at quarter capacity after an artillery round hit a wing of the hospital, doctors feel powerless to help such cases.

Last week, when a six-year-old girl called Zahra was diagnosed with acute lympoblastic leukaemia at the hospital, Dr Nima Altemimi told her to go south, to Basra.

Mustafa Arif-Hameed
Mustafa Arif-Hameed - another leukaemia sufferer
His reasoning - that by sending her to a bigger city, her case might come to the attention of the Kuwaiti government, which has airlifted a handful of severely sick children from Iraq.

"We can't treat these people in Iraq now. The specialist hospitals in Baghdad and Basra have been looted. We're doing all we can just to concentrate on infections and some curable diseases," says the hospital's Dr Abdul Ghaffar al-Shadood.

A few minutes later he finds another case. By now, the facts are all too familiar. Mustafa Arif Hameed, eight, was diagnosed last August with acute lymphocytic leukaemia. He had been making progress but has been brought to the hospital by his father because his medicine has run out.

"If the treatment is discontinued now," says Dr Shadood, "his improvement will be reversed."

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