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Iraqi Health Care System Slowly Improving

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2003 – After years of neglect during the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq's health care system is slowly moving ahead, the Coalition Provisional Authority's senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Health said here today.

In 2002, Iraq's health care budget for 23 million people was $16 million between 40 and 50 cents per capita, and the system for purchasing drugs, equipment and supplies "was corrupt," said Jim Haveman. "Everything in Iraq was set up to make money for the former regime."

The adviser described a 400-bed hospital he visited in Tikrit. A whole side of the facility was covered with sheets of steel so patients couldn't see a nearby palace compound.

"That was the typical attitude toward health care," he added. "After the liberation, one of the first things they did was take down those steel sheets so patients could have sunlight."

Haveman said he is "very impressed" with the country's potential to create a quality health care system. "This is not going to be a quick fix. You don't repair hospitals or clinics that haven't been repaired in 16 years overnight. You don't develop a health system overnight."

Iraq has 1,200 primary health care clinics and more than 240 hospitals, but most are in poor condition. Equipment is old, inadequate or inoperable. The good news, noted Haveman, is that the clinics and hospitals are operating, and many are being remodeled. Iraqi physicians are "eager to learn," he said.

Between July 1 and Dec. 31 a budget of $210 million (roughly $20 per capita) will work to improve health care. "We're putting $8 million toward infrastructure to improve (water and sewer systems), and we're installing more than 128 generators," he said.

More than 500 security people have been trained, and a posttraumatic stress program for children and adults has begun. Doctors' salaries have gone from $20 a month to between $160 and $260 a month. Some 9,000 tons of drugs have been distributed since May 24.

The Ministry of Health held a strategic planning meeting Aug. 17 and 18 that included agencies such as the World Health Organization, World Bank, UNICEF and International Committee of the Red Cross. The result, said Haveman, was a commitment to pool efforts and support the ministry. It was a "whole group of people working together for one purpose."

Japan, Egypt, Korea, Turkey, Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia also have stepped forward to help remodel, rebuild and train staff, said Haveman.

When the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed, 76 patients from a nearby spinal injury hospital had to be moved. As a result, noted Haveman, an emergency response plan was created.

When a bomb exploded outside a shrine in Najaf last week, an Iraqi emergency response team that included physicians, security personnel, ambulances and a refrigerator truck (for the deceased) was dispatched. "It showed we could respond in an emergency," he said.

Health care is key to any reconstruction, said Haveman. "It's key to successful economic development." While there are many challenges ahead, Haveman said, health care in Iraq is improving every day.

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