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U.S., Allies Help Iraqis Repair Their Health Care System

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 25, 2003 – Members of Iraq's medical community - with U.S. and allied help - are determined to restore their nation's health care system after decades of abuse and neglect by Saddam Hussein's regime, DoD's top medical official said here today.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, noted that Iraq has "an energized and educated medical community that's ready and capable of reestablishing" the country's position as one of the health care leaders in the Middle East.

Back from a recent trip to Iraq to assess the health care situation there, Winkenwerder noted that Hussein preferred to lavish money on palaces, security and weaponry, while ignoring his people's health.

Hussein used Iraq's health care system to punish his enemies, Winkenwerder observed, intimating that those citizens out of favor with the regime were denied adequate care.

For example, during his visits to hospitals and clinics in Baghdad and other areas in Iraq he saw severely ill children who had never received necessary childhood immunizations. Other children, he added, were acutely malnourished and suffering from dehydration.

The infant mortality rate during the Hussein regime was telling, Winkenwerder observed, noting there were 83 deaths per 1,000 births, the worst of 17 Middle Eastern countries.

One in eight Iraqi children didn't live to reach age 5, he added.

Saddam's neglect of public health also adversely affected the nation's life- expectancy rate. Today, Iraq's women live to an average age of just over 60, he pointed out, while most Iraqi men die at age 59. In the United States, the comparable figures are age 80 for women and age 74 for men.

Such negative public health statistics are not surprising, Winkenwerder noted, because in 2002 the Hussein regime spent just $20 million on health care for a nation with 25 million people.

That works out to be less than a dollar spent per person per year, he pointed out.

Things would be far worse in Iraq if not for the "heroic" work of Iraqi health officials and the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent health organizations, as well as efforts provided by numerous other non-governmental organizations, Winkenwerder noted.

However, much progress has been made since the end of the war in restoring Iraq's ravaged health care system, Winkenwerder pointed out, noting that Iraqi health care workers are now being paid and 240 hospitals countrywide are again open for business.

The United States and its allies plan to spend the time and money to restore Iraq's health care system to its former eminence using its previous structure, Winkenwerder noted, not to create "something new and altogether different."

Besides the current renovation of Iraqi hospitals and clinics, the effort will also involve considerable refresher training for Iraq's health care community, he continued.

The budget for the resuscitated Iraqi Ministry of Health for the next six months has been pegged at $210 million, Winkerwerder declared, which he said was a 7,000-percent increase in medical care funding compared to what was spent during the now-defunct Hussein regime.

Iraq's Ministry of Health is also overhauling the nation's pharmaceutical system, Winkenwerder reported. More than 3,000 tons of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and other items have been delivered to health care providers in Iraq during the last 50 days.

United States' military civil affairs units continue projects to renovate Iraqi hospitals and health clinics, he noted.

The United Arab Emirates, Italy, Japan and other nations are also making important contributions, Winkenwerder added.

The Ministry of Health is now working on a national health care assessment. An important near-term goal is to provide 90 percent of Iraq's children with necessary childhood immunizations before the end of 2004, he said.

Iraq's medical professionals have "never lost hope," the doctor said, "and are ready to go forward to reestablish their country's health care infrastructure.

"And they will, with our help and the help of other countries and interested parties around the world," he said.

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