Children Continue To Be Main Victims Of U.S. Occupation
By Dr. CÚsar Chelala
-- -- New York - One of the most tragic consequenes of the Iraq war has been its effect on children. The
war continues to claim them among its main victims, while the
health of the majority of the population also continues to
deteriorate. In the 1980s, Iraq had one of the best health care
systems in the region. Following the 2003 invasion by the
coalition forces, an ongoing cycle of insurgent violence and
occupation forces’ counter-attacks have significantly damaged
the basic health infrastructure in the country. As a result,
Iraq’s health system cannot respond to the most basic health
needs of the population.
In 1991, there were in Iraq 1,800 health care centers. A decade
and a half later, that number is almost half and almost a third
of these require major rehabilitation. This is paralleled by the
country’s fall in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP)
Human Development Index from 96 to 127, one of the most dramatic
declines in human welfare in recent history.
According to Jean Ziegler, the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s
special expert on the right to food, the rate of malnutrition
among Iraqi children has almost doubled since Saddam Hussein’s
ouster in April 2003. Today, at 7.7 percent, Iraq’s child acute
malnutrition rate is roughly equal to that of Burundi, an
African nation ravaged by more than a decade of war. It is far
higher than the rates in Ugand and Haiti, countries also
devastated by unrelenting violence.
The population health problems are dramatically different than
those facing young Iraqis a generation ago, when obesity was one
of the main nutrition-related public health concerns. High rates
of malnutrition started in the 1990s as a result of the
U.N.-imposed sanctions to punish the Saddam Hussein regime for
invading Kuwait in 1990.
Lack of dependable electricity and shortages of potable water
throughout the country have led to the deterioration of the
population’s health, resulting in outbreaks of typhoid fever,
particularly in southern Iraq. The collapse of the water and
sewage systems is probably the cause of outbreaks of hepatitis
particularly lethal to pregnant women. According to the Iraq
Living Conditions Survey of 22,000 households, a joint effort of
the Iraq government and UNDP (United Nations Development
Programme,) some 47% of urban households and only 3% of rural
households have a sewage connection.
Presently, thousands of children born after the war have none of
their required vaccinations, and routine immunization services
in major areas of the country are all but disrupted. In
addition, the destruction of the refrigeration sytems needed to
store vaccines have rendered vaccine supplies virtually useless.
Even antibiotics of minimal cost are in short supply, increasing
the population’s risk of dying from common infections. Hospitals
are overcrowded and many hospitals go dark at night for lack of
lighting fixtures. The Iraqi Minister of Health claims that 100
percent of the hospitals in Iraq need rehabilitation. As a
result of all these public health failures, Iraq is the country
that has least progressed in reducing child mortality since the
There are increasing number of orphans, many of whom have become
homeless and have had to resort to prostitution to survive.
Although the Iraqi Ministry of Labor has created programs to
eliminate this problem, its efforts have not been successful.
War has affected the psychilogical well-being of adults and
children alike, many of whom present serious symptoms of
post-traumatic stress disorder. It is estimated that less than
one hundred psychiatrists remain in Iraq (approximately one for
every 300,000 Iraqis) and none of them specializes in child
That children continue to suffer the terrible consequences of
the war indicates that new ways have to be found to protect them
better. An independent international medical commission should
investigate children’s health status, and suggest measures for
its improvement. Iraqi children should urgently be provided with
basic nutrition, immunization and psychological care to
alleviate the tremendous damage brought by a war that has taken
a brutal toll on their health and quality of life.
Dr. CÚsar Chelala, an international public health consultant,
is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an
article on human rights.