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Friday, 14 April, 2000, 18:25 GMT 19:25 UK
Iraq's ward of death

Doctors gave this boy just a few days to live
By Andrew North in Baghdad

The leukaemia ward at the Saddam Central Hospital for Children in Baghdad is a depressing sight.

Many of the children on the ward have lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatment, others are emaciated and barely register the presence of the people around them.

But most depressing of all, the doctors say that none of these children will survive.

"We call this ward the ward of death," said Dr Basim Al Abdili, as he inspects a patient's notes at the end of a bed.

"Every day we lose one patient, maybe more than one patient, just in this ward. The mortality rate for leukaemia and other cancers here in this ward is 100%."

Aid agencies working in Iraq say it is the same story at other hospitals across the country.

UN blamed

Leukaemia, which affects blood and bone marrow, was relatively rare in Iraq before 1990.

But according to the Iraqi Health Ministry, there has been a fourfold increase in the incidence of the disease since then, a figure that is now generally accepted by international agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In the West however, many leukaemia patients can be treated for the disease and survive. Not in Iraq.

Dr Al Abdali blames the UN embargo, which will be 10 years old in August. It holds up supplies of the chemotherapy drugs, he said, meaning that the hospital does not have the right treatments at the right time.

The US and British Governments dispute such claims, arguing that through the UN's oil-for-food programme, under which Iraqi oil sales are used to pay for its humanitarian needs, the country can buy all the drugs it needs. And they accuse the Iraqi Government of failing to distribute drugs and other medical supplies properly around the country.

Equipment shortages prove fatal

But it is not just drug shortages that are a problem, according to doctors at the Saddam hospital.

To have a real chance of tackling many leukaemia cases, they say, they need to carry out bone marrow transplants, but at the moment no hospital in Iraq has the necessary facility.

In fact, the Iraqi Health Ministry has just announced plans to set up a bone marrow transplant centre at Baghdad's Mansour hospital.

But it will depend on the UN sanctions committee allowing the Ministry to import the necessary equipment.

And Khalid Jamil Mohammed Al Hayat, under-secretary at the Health Ministry was not hopeful.

"I expect again the Americans will suspend this equipment," because, he claimed, they are likely to say it could have a dual use, in other words that it could have a military use.

US officials maintain that they have to be careful, because they do not trust the Iraqi Government.

But for the staff on the leukaemia ward at the Saddam Children's hospital, discussions about a bone marrow transplant centre are just that - discussions.

Day to day, they are struggling just to provide basic facilities for their patients, because the hospital is so short of funds.

The leukaemia ward is run-down, with paint peeling off the walls. Children on the ward are not isolated from each other, which means infections spread easily. And doctors admit that parents sometimes carry out basic nursing tasks, because the wards are so short-staffed.

Gulf War link

On one bed was nine-year-old Mohanad Adnan, with his mother Hanna beside him. A large blood blister has developed over his right eye and Dr Al Abdali said he was no longer responding to the chemotherapy treatment they had available.

"We expect the death of this patient in a few days, because of the continuous bleeding."

Speaking through a translator, Hanna said she had no doubt what had caused her son's illness.

"The cause is known, by all people inside and outside Iraq. The cause is the contamination of our land during the war."

She was referring to the belief among many Iraqis that the increased incidence of leukaemia is due to radioactivity released by the depleted uranium (DU) munitions used by US and British forces during the 1991 Gulf War. DU particles are believed to have got into the food chain and the water supply.

In fact, there has yet to be independent confirmation of a definite link between DU munitions and leukaemia. But anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a strong possibility.

Study

Most leukaemia cases are turning up in southern Iraq, where military activity was most intense. The majority of the patients in the leukaemia ward at Saddam Children's hospital are referred from towns in the south.

The WHO's Baghdad representative, Dr Ghulam Popal, said it intends to start work on a detailed study of the issue later this year. But in an interview he said, "I suspect that this depleted uranium is one of the causes of this leukaemia."

In Britain and America, there is widespread suspicion that DU munitions may be among the causes of so-called Gulf War syndrome, the debilitating condition that has afflicted so many Gulf veterans.

When asked about the possibility of a link between DU and leukaemia among Iraqis, an official at the British Foreign Office said: "We are sceptical about Iraqi claims."

But he added: "We would welcome a comprehensive investigation to look into the issue, covering all the possible factors.

"There is a genuine concern over the issue of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq."

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