Iraqi medical crisis as doctors flee

By John Leyne
BBC News, Amman

For the people of Iraq, it may be the ultimate nightmare.

The ordeal continues for victims of Iraq’s violence when they are taken to hospital.

Most of the best medical staff have left after being targeted by insurgents. Many have fled the country just in the last few months.

Drugs and equipment are almost non-existent. The notorious militias target patients inside hospitals, and doctors inside the health ministry.

All this in a country that used to pride itself on the best medical services in the Middle East.

Many of the doctors have gone to neighbouring Jordan. There seem to be many thousands here, all with graphic tales of the horrors they have witnessed.

I walked into one Amman hospital, and immediately found four top Iraqi doctors, all British-trained and with world class skills.

They did not want to be named, because they have families in Iraq, but their stories are riveting.

“By the time I left the hospital, there was a great shortage of medicines. Nursing staff was zero,” said a professor of neurology.

“In the college where I used to teach, five consultants were killed, assassinated.

“Before I left, I was doing a tour with my resident staff. I looked at the ward, I looked at the beds, and I said in a very loud voice: ‘This hospital is not good even for pets. No medicines, no bed linens, the smell is very bad. Sewage is out on the floor.'”

He said that at one point all the operating theatres in his hospital were shut down for three weeks because no oxygen cylinders were available.

Another doctor described what happens to Iraqis who go to hospital for treatment after a bomb attack.

“You can reach a hospital easily, but there is no one to deal with you. And if they do deal with you they [militias] might come and kill you afterwards,” he said. “Patients will leave because they are threatened.

“I left my hospital because two of my managers in that hospital were killed inside the hospital.”

A third doctor said: “When there is a bomb and patients are coming, services are overwhelmed.

“There are very few skilled people to deal with the patients. So most of the wounded, the seriously wounded, will die.”

‘Kidnapping risk’

Doctor after doctor described how armed gangs have now infiltrated not just the hospitals, but the health ministry itself.

Another of this group of doctors, a top cardiologist, described how they met the Iraqi health minister in Amman recently.

“He told us that he can’t do anything, because he is sitting on one floor. The floor above him belongs to one of the militias, the floor below belongs to another militia. He can see people fighting inside his ministry.”

“None of the doctors can go inside the ministry of health because he will be kidnapped,” chipped in another of the doctors.

“If they go in, they will not go out.”

As for the billions of dollars spent on reconstruction, these doctors say they saw a little of it. But most was wasted on shoddy furniture and poor decorations.

Some money has gone on high-tech machinery. But it is useless, say the doctors, because no one knows how to use it. They believe the equipment was only bought so that officials could siphon off part of the funds.

‘Stolen medicines’

As I left the doctors, I met an Iraqi patient waiting for treatment, a pharmacist.

She described going into a filthy maternity ward in Iraq, with rats the size of cats.

Although she was only trained as a pharmacist, she could see one of the expectant mothers needed her blood pressure tested. There was no doctor around, so she tried to help. But there was not even the equipment for that simple test.

As for the other facilities, “there was some medication, but they were stolen by the assistant pharmacist,” she said.

“They came back in the night and want to sell me the medication.”

Later I met the doctors again. They said that whatever horror stories they had told about the medical situation, however bad it sounded, it was actually worse.
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