THE AIRY, bright and modern corridors of the new, $166 million (€116 million) 101-bed Laura Bush hospital for children with cancer are a short car journey from the colourfully painted, but ageing Ibn Ghazwan maternity and children’s hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
They provide a rare contrast to the greyish-brown city streetscape, whose dusty, fume-filled air will reach 60 degrees this summer and is some of the most polluted in the world.
Brightness and colour might inspire initial hope in the minds of concerned parents here, but both hospitals still lack vital machines and laboratory equipment needed to provide radiotherapy or to diagnose the numerous conditions that mean up to 10 babies die every day in the Ibn Ghazwan maternity ward.
“We are blind,” says Dr Ahmed Jafer, a paediatric specialist. “Ours is the only neo-natal unit in this region but we cannot quickly diagnose what exactly we are dealing with. Our children are dying from malnutrition, diarrhoea, TB, meningitis, leishmaniasis, chronic liver disease, pneumonia, anaemia and congenital heart disease, all of which are easily preventable outside of Iraq.”
Add to this the high incidence of miscarriages, up to 40 abortions every week, child leukaemia rates that more than doubled here from 1993 to 2007 and the weekly number of tumours and congenital deformities – missing eyes or limbs for example – that children are born with and you only begin to get a sense of the scale of the horror that has been visited on Basra’s children; indeed, on many more across Iraq – since UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein began during the first Gulf War in 1991.
Dr Jafer and his colleagues may be metaphorically blind. But two-year-old Abu Felah Reyal’s blindness – in his right eye, over which an enlarged tumour has developed – is real. He has been undergoing chemotherapy at the Laura Bush hospital, many of whose patients are from Missan City, Zubair and Nasariyeh, which are south of Basra, near the border with Kuwait.
Four-month-old Mustafa Farej, whose liver tumour has left him with an enlarged abdomen, has also had aggressive chemotherapy. He now has a chest infection and the expression on his face looks pained even as he sleeps on a bed in a quiet corner of the ward.
Large stickers featuring the happy smiling faces of Disney characters – Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and friends – adorn the walls, witnesses in a slightly surreal way to the fate of the patients here.
Senior and front-line medical staff say chemical weapons, including those featuring depleted uranium (DU), were used extensively in the border region during the Iran-Iraq and subsequent Gulf wars.
Their poisonous legacy will continue to take the lives of children for years to come.
“You can find evidence of the effects of DU in patients’ urine or you can do biopsies and establish a link. But we don’t have the facilities to do this; we have little doubt that DU is linked to the rise in cancer and deformities. We’re also seeing a rise in infertility in men and women, which is a concern,” says Prof Thamer Hamdan, dean of Basra Medical College.
It costs over $200,000 to treat a child for leukaemia. At the Laura Bush hospital, 80 per cent of the cost of the expensive medicines is met by the Aladdin’s Magic Lamp Project – a small Vienna-based charity – and its European partners. At the moment, the Iraqi government, through Basra’s local health authority, covers the remainder.
Save The Children and their funding partners are also providing assistance here, through teacher training, education, psychosocial, capacity-building and school water and sanitation schemes.
But senior medical staff in Basra also point to a shortage of people with leadership and management skills that can be passed on and which can assist the improvement of the health, water and sanitation infrastructure.
Visiting one of Save The Children’s colourful “child-friendly spaces”, about 40 boys and girls from the locality – who are usually segregated in school – are playing and laughing together in a classroom about an hour’s drive towards the marshlands outside Basra.
Thought to be the location of the Garden of Eden, the marshlands are a splash of green on Iraq’s dull landscape. And in Chibaysh, among the reeds which grow in abundance, tadpoles, sticklebacks, bird life and buffalo appear to be thriving thanks to government and community regeneration efforts.
As we pass a tall, newly built concrete pier beside a community reservoir, some children are jumping off it into the waters of one of the many irrigation channels of clear, pale-greenish water that criss-cross this vast area. Splashes and laughter might be the everyday sounds of a normal childhood. But while a poisonous legacy of past wars also exists here, they are sounds that many of Iraq’s children may never know.