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
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 1990s.
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
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 psychiatry.
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
Dr. César Chelala, an international public health
consultant, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an
article on human rights.