October 5, 2007

" I did not look away "

" Hospitals specialising in cancer treatment have urged the Iraq authorities to replenish supplies because they say a shortage of essential medicines is putting the lives of thousands of patients at risk.

“Patients are dying from cancer because of a lack of medicines in public hospitals. Private pharmacies are selling the products but at very high prices, which cannot be afforded by poor families,” said Ibraheem Muhammad, a senior official at the Cancer Research Centre at the Ministry of Health.

“Indispensable drugs like methotrexate, largely used in breast [cancer], bone [cancer] and in certain cases of leukaemia; cyclophosphamide used in lung and breast cancer and lymphomas, as well as vindesine, used in all those cases, are seriously short in all hospitals in Iraq,” Muhammad added. “To make the situation worse for patients, some machines used for radiotherapy are broken, waiting for repairs.”

According to Muhammad, some wealthier patients are going abroad for treatment when they can get the visas but poor families are desperate as they cannot afford to be treated privately.
“Based on information received at our centre, at least 60 people have died from cancer in Iraq due to a lack of medicines in the past two months. Cancer in some patients can develop very fast if treatment isn’t available and if the situation continues, more cases are going to be reported in the coming weeks,” he noted.

Black-market dealers

Fua’ad Abdel-Razaq, an oncologist at Cancer Studies Hospital, in the capital, Baghdad, said black-market dealers can be found at hospital doors selling drugs for cancer treatment.

“In addition to the high prices, many of the drugs [sold illicitly] have already expired and desperate families buy them in an attempt to save the lives of their loved ones but thereby put the patients at high risk,” Abdel-Razaq added.
Based on information received at our centre, at least 60 people have died from cancer in Iraq due to a lack of medicines in the past two months.

The oncologist went on to say that in the past few months some local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) delivered many medicines to his hospital but none was suitable for cancer treatment.

"We were forced to send all the drugs to other public hospitals because they are not for treating cancer. For example, paracetamol cannot treat the pain of a cancer patient but morphine can, but it isn’t available,” said Abdel-Razaq.

Doctors at Basra’s Maternity and Child Hospital said about 20 new cancer and leukaemia cases are reported among children each month. “It pains us to see so many children appearing in our clinics suffering from cancer and especially as we know they will die because they’ll not be treated,” said Dr Ali Hashimy, an oncologist at the hospital. “If medicines are available we could save at least 70 percent of them.”

I bet you thought that was an article from the sanctions years. Wrong.
This IRIN article appeared yesterday and is dated 4th october 2007.

Every single Iraqi I meet tells me that the sanctions years appear like the "golden years" compared to what is now. The golden years. Can you imagine !?

The sanctions years were horrible years, but today's reality in Iraq is even more horrific. The above article attests to it. And this is nothing. The reality is far uglier than what is stated in the IRIN report.

Talking about the "golden years" of the sanctions, I remember how I lost an uncle because the hospital had no ink for the ECG and no X rays. Forbidden by the sanctions committee. He passed away from a lung and heart condition at age 54.
And how I lost another uncle due to cancer and there was no available medication and no morphine. Forbidden by the sanctions committee.

I also remember seeing little children with leukemia and other diseases queuing for days in the hope of getting treatment. Many of them died while waiting. I will never forget their faces nor their eyes. The despair, the fear and the eternal question marked all over them with WHY ? WHAT HAVE WE DONE ?

I will never forget the doctors, trying to be brave about it all and privately breaking down in tears...

How can I forget the " golden years "?

But today, hospital patients are dragged out of their beds and shot. Or they are left to die for lack of medication and treatment. If they are lucky to make it to a functional hospital that is and if they are lucky to find a doctor, the majority of which have fled the country. Do remember the brain drain of the Iraqi intelligentsia.

Who is to blame this time around ? Saddam Hussein and his WMD's ?

I can understand why the sanctions years are considered the "golden years" in comparison to today's Iraq.

But just to refresh your "collective memory" or should I say your "collective conscience ", assuming you have one of course. I want to share with you a wonderful piece of writing from someone who visited Iraq several times during those "golden years." His name is George Capaccio and this is what he had to say.

I Did Not Look Away

No, I did not look away

from the things I went there to see.

In a land where hunger had become rare

until sanctions and war joined hands in prayer,

I saw women in black begging at street corners

and boys too poor for school

hawking cigarettes and kerosene

to keep their families afloat.

I saw parents rushing into hospitals

with children in their arms,

and emergency rooms flooded with patients

holding in pain on bleeding floors.

I saw ambulances on cinder blocks

rotting away in a parking lot

because ambulances are weapons of war

and can't be repaired in Iraq.

I saw oxygen tanks standing in line,

waiting for valves that never come,

and hospital hallways stripped to the bone.

Everything gone, lugged off and sold

for even the simplest supplies --

a light bulb, a pail, a bag of diapers.

I saw an infant named Amani Kasim

curled up on a filthy blanket,

her face confined to an oxygen mask,

her body shriveled and discolored

from severe malnutrition.

I saw a fourteen-year old girl named Amira

who could not stand and could not speak

and was dying from cancer.

"Two maybe three days more," the doctor said.

"We do not have the proper drugs

so we give supportive care only."

She was so thin, so weak

she could not lift her head off the pillow.

I caressed her brow and cheek

and the damp ringlets of hair

fallen about her face.

A collapsed blood bag froze above her.

Mother and grandmother softly wept

and prayed to God for mercy.

I saw other mothers tending incubators,

that didn't have thermostats

and might overheat.

I saw the blood and urine

on beds without sheets,

the nimbus of flies around bottles of formula,

the sadness in the doctors' eyes

as they told me which infants

would live or die.

No, I didn't look away.

I caressed each brow,

whispered through my touch,

"Your life is a part of me and when you go,

I shall weep."

I saw a generation of mothers

keeping watch on their children.

I heard them ask me for medicine

and felt their hands open then meet

the emptiness of mine

This is only one piece. George has more to share about his experiences in Iraq. I just wish there were more people like George around. You can contact him at Georgecapaccio@verizon.net

Painting : Iraqi artist, AbdelAmeer Alwan.