WHO returns to Iraq to find major problems among 2.8 million internally displaced Iraqis

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 21 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a928
  1. John Zarocostas
  1. 1Geneva

    The World Health Organization announced on Thursday 17 July that in late June it had re-established, after a five year absence, a permanent international staff in Iraq to help the country meet urgent humanitarian needs and to strengthen its fragile healthcare system.

    International personnel of United Nations agencies left Iraq after a suicide attack at the UN’s Iraq headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 left 22 dead and 150 wounded.

    “WHO will intensify its recovery and relief assistance to Iraq and help its people obtain the health care they deserve,” said Eric Laroche, WHO’s chief for health action in crises.

    Two of the agency’s international staff recently went back to Iraq, and there are plans to increase this number to about 10 by the end of this year, WHO officials said.

    “Our day to day dealings with the government and other health partners will be vastly improved by having a permanent international presence here,” the WHO’s country representative for Iraq, Naeema Al-Gasseer, told reporters in a teleconference.

    She said that a key priority for the agency is to avoid a cholera and typhoid outbreak again this summer, and he noted that a very robust surveillance system is now in place that monitors both the population and water quality.

    “This is our immediate, urgent priority; and our focus, again, is the internally displaced, the vulnerable, because they are the ones at highest risk,” Dr Al-Gasseer said.

    A mid-year report on Iraq by the International Organization for Migration said that better security has slowed the level of new displacements of people to a trickle but notes that 2.8 million internally displaced Iraqis “continue to face dire living conditions, with mediocre access to shelter, food, health care, water, and other basic services.”

    “Hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, skin and intestinal infections, and anaemia, along with ailments due to malnutrition, are rife, with women and children particularly vulnerable to them,” the report says. It adds that 14% of internally displaced people claim that they have no access to healthcare services and that 30% cannot afford or access urgently needed drugs.

    Dr Al-Gasseer said that other key priorities for WHO are to continue the immunisation campaigns that in the past five years have resulted in nearly five million children being vaccinated against polio and measles.

    Helping the government to introduce two new vaccines against hepatitis and rotavirus is another high priority, she noted.

    Hospitals in Iraq “need rehabilitation,” Dr Al-Gasseer said. Although the government has decided that Iraq needs 10 000 public health centres, she said that it could be a decade before these are ready.

    Other priorities for WHO, officials said, are supporting the government in improving public health, reducing the burden of chronic disease, and ensuring basic health care in emergencies.

    However, Dr Al-Gasseer said that the Iraqi budget for drugs, for example, has been “very limited” in comparison with the need, which is “very huge.”

    The International Committee of the Red Cross said that to help maintain operational standards of medical services in Iraq it had “provided 14 hospitals and four primary healthcare centres across the country with 10 tonnes of medical material in June.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a928


    • Iraq Displacement & Return: 2008 Mid-Year Review is available at

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