Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Viewpoint: Baghdad healthcare

A relative looks at an X-ray of an injured Iraqi man at a hospital in the city of Hilla - March 2009
The difference in standards between private and state-funded healthcare is stark

An Iraqi member of staff at the BBC Baghdad bureau reflects on the state of healthcare in the capital Baghdad. For security reasons, the author's name is not being published.

Not many years ago, there were few better countries than Iraq in which to bring up a child. And there were few better countries for a child to fall sick in - or for a worried parent to seek help.

It's also true that Iraq was renowned in ancient times as a beacon of medical science, as the homeland of Avicenna and al-Kindi, among other pioneers of the practice of healthcare.

Baghdad's College of Medicine is one of the oldest in the region, if not the world. And, until recently, people came from all over the Middle East to Iraq for treatment.

The health service began to decline as the sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait began to bite. And the deterioration reached catastrophic proportions after 2003.

Many of Iraq's top doctors and scientists fled the country. Many more were assassinated by jihadists and death squads.

A few days ago, my daughter contracted flu. There's a public clinic just next door, but my wife and I decided to take our child to a proper paediatrician. He's one of a few who have begun to come back to our country.

Absent doctor

His clinic is only five kilometres (three miles) from our house. But until recently, it might have been on the other side of the moon.

The district was a stronghold of a militant group responsible for much of the killing in the capital.

We are like cancer patients, who try to cheer themselves up by saying: "Hey, it could be worse. At least we don't have heart disease

Previously it had been a mixed neighbourhood - a mouth-watering prospect for sectarian murderers. Now it's almost entirely Shia. But at least it's no longer off limits.

We got to the surgery early in the morning, and it was already packed. There was no sign of the doctor.

He's old-fashioned and doesn't believe in mobile telephones, so his secretary had no idea where he was.

As the clock ticked, irritation turned into concern, then near panic - had he been shot or caught in an explosion?

Finally, the secretary got through to him on his home phone. He'd got stuck in a mammoth traffic jam caused by a visiting Iranian dignitary and had eventually given up the journey.

We gave up too, and decided to buy some pills and try to see him another day if we needed to.

'Corruption is king'

For those who cannot afford to pay for treatment, it's a whole lot worse. A friend told me about his trip to a state-funded hospital.

It was filthy, he said, more like a mechanic's workshop than a hospital. The walls were smeared with henna handprints, a ritual women from the villages follow in the belief that it will augur well for a relative's recovery.

The wards aren't decorated with calming landscapes or still-lifes, but with bloody portraits of beheaded religious figures martyred centuries ago. Open sewers, angry with flies, flow beneath the open windows.

Not a place you'd want to stay in for long. But if you want to hurry your operation along, you'll inevitably need to bribe the hospital staff. Corruption is king in Iraq, and the medical sector is no exception.

The government is appealing to Iraqi doctors to return to the country. A few have come back, and have been shocked at the decline. Some have quickly headed back to the countries they now call home. It's a tough place to live, and the threat of violence is still ever-present.

Of course, things are better than they were two years ago. But you wouldn't call life "normal" in Iraq.

We are like cancer patients, who try to cheer themselves up by saying: "Hey, it could be worse. At least we don't have heart disease."

Previous articles by the same writer:

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