Patients plentiful, supplies scarce

Hospital: In the port city of Umm Qasr, three doctors are overwhelmed by mobs of people seeking care, but a medical team from Kuwait arrives, offering a glimmer of hope.

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

UMM QASR, Iraq - The hospital is mobbed. Mothers press inside the concrete structure with sons and daughters suffering from diarrhea, malnutrition, coughs and fevers. Men hobble about the lobby with crude crutches that Americans might recognize from Civil War photos. Outside, children who are thirsty and threadbare beg foreigners for water and dinars, the devalued Iraqi currency.

The three doctors at this port city's only hospital have been working day and night to treat the daily influx of 800 to 1,000 people since war began three weeks ago. That is about triple the usual volume, and the doctors are weary from overwork, frustrated that they have had to turn some people away.

But yesterday, help arrived. A clean white bus pulled up, and out poured six Kuwaiti doctors and a paramedic offering to treat the sick and provide medicine and equipment to restore this broken-down place.

Years of neglect

"This hospital has been neglected for 10 or 13 years," said Dr. Mubarek Ali Al-Kandari, the general surgeon who came from Kuwait with a gynecologist, an anesthesiologist, three internists and a paramedic. "It is time now to rectify things."

The hospital is dirty with desert sand and pieces of broken equipment. Entire rooms are empty - no examination tables, no medical carts.

An emergency room has several beds behind plastic partitions. But the sheets look sand-yellow, like everything else. The operating room hasn't functioned in six months. Doctors say the place has been deteriorating for years, but war halted shipments of medicine and supplies.

Al-Kandari, a 33-year-old with a curly beard and the traces of an Irish brogue from his medical training in Dublin, boarded the bus at dawn yesterday after performing an appendectomy in Kuwait City on a woman who was 36 weeks pregnant.

After the 90-minute drive to Umm Qasr, the medical personnel began seeing patients, but mainly drew up inventories of needed supplies. They planned to stay all day, then return three times a week until they are satisfied that they can stay home with clear consciences.

In neat English script, Al-Kandari wrote up a list of 40 needed medicines that, he said, the Kuwaiti government and medical societies will provide: antibiotics, steroids, painkillers, asthma inhalers and others.

He also listed supplies to restore the operating room so that surgeons can perform hernia repairs, Caesarean sections and other basic procedures. The hospital also needs a ventilator, sterilization equipment and modern instruments.

Kuwait, an oil-rich country with modern health care, can afford to help Iraq. But Al-Kandari and others said the medical problems are daunting and will require Western help if any lasting improvements are to be made.

It is a common refrain in these parts: The United States and Britain started this war, and it will be up to them to put the country back together again.

"I think it should be maintained by the British," said Al-Kandari. "They are taking care of the area. They should pay salaries for doctors and pay staff for cleaning and provide a continual supply of medicine."

The health problems of Umm Qasr cannot be solved by doctors and equipment alone. Azzedire Zeroual, an Algerian-born physician with UNICEF who is assessing health needs in southern Iraq, said an estimated 1 million children younger than age 5 suffer from varying degrees of malnutrition.

Although there is little outright starvation, he said, three wars in 20 years, along with U.S. sanctions, have created food shortages that make it hard for the poor to get the protein and vitamins they need.

Although the United Nations oil-for-food program helped, Zeroual said, the privations caused by this war threaten to make the problem worse.

He predicted a 25 percent increase in malnutrition over the next year. UNICEF helps by providing high-protein biscuits for children with moderate malnutrition and therapeutic milk for the severely malnourished.

Malnourished children appear pale and lethargic, he said, and are at high risk for cholera, typhoid and other infections.

Poor sanitation and a shortage of clean drinking water have led to an increase in diarrhea in the past three weeks. Yesterday, the hospital treated 50 children with diarrhea, giving them salt solutions supplied by UNICEF to prevent youngsters from becoming dehydrated.

"Some of these children were showing the first signs of malnutrition," said Zeroual, explaining how he can tell by pulling down a child's lower eyelid and checking to see whether the normally red tissue has turned white. "In Iraq, most of the pregnant women are suffering from iron deficiencies and anemia, and 25 percent have low-birth-weight babies."

Typically, May brings outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in southern Iraq, and Zeroual worries that food and water shortages will make this a particularly difficult year.

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