by IRIN United Nations Report –
BAGHDAD(July 4, 2003) – Three-month-old Bari’ah lies motionless on a bed in one of Baghdad’s children’s hospitals. She struggles for breath, seemingly unaware of the plasma drip attached to a vein in her tiny foot. She weighed a healthy three and a half kilogrammes at birth along with her twin sister. But just a week ago she got diarrhoea and now weighs half a kilogramme less than at birth.
Her mother, Bushra, sits patiently trying to feed her fragile daughter with a bottle. “Just last week she was fine – and now I am really sad,” she told IRIN. “I had three other daughters before and never had a problem like this.”
There are 13 other children like Bari’ah in the ward at Baghdad’s Al-Alwiyah Children’s Hospital all suffering from malnutrition. However, their wizened faces and swollen stomachs are not caused by lack of food, but by diarrhoea and vomiting.
The poor water and sanitation conditions still obtaining in Baghdad are behind a steep rise in the number of cases such as these. It has been like this for more than two months now, and there are few signs of improvement as summer temperatures in the capital soar.
Babies who are bottle-fed – like Bari’ah and her sister – are at particular risk. Many Iraqi women prefer using bottles, because breast-feeding takes time and energy, and they have other children to look after. Moreover, the babies prefer the sweet formula milk. But the powder used to prepare it has to be mixed with water, so the milk is easily contaminated. “I started feeding her breast milk and bottle milk,” said Bushra, who lives in a middle class area of southern Baghdad. “But she preferred the bottle.”
The frequent power cuts and lack of electricity in Baghdad means that the water is pumped at low pressure, which allows sewage to seep into the network. Most of the water in Baghdad is contaminated, and there is a lack of sterilising agents.
“If the basic services are not improved soon, we will end up with a disastrous situation,” Dr Wasam al-Timimi, a nutrition project officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF)told IRIN. “The children are the most vulnerable, they deteriorate very fast.”
Fourteen-month-old Ihab had been an extremely energetic child, who spent his time jumping on his older sisters and trying to go up the stairs to the top of the house. Now he lies listlessly, sometimes crying out irritably. He began suffering from diarrhoea a week after the war started in March. But the family live in a village outside Baghdad and dared not go out to seek treatment.
“We could not get to the hospital – it was far too dangerous,” said his mother, Badriyah. “We did not even go out of the house because of all the bombs.” They did not venture into the city until more than a week after the US-led Coalition forces arrived. By then Ihab was weak and thin. Even after 10 days in the hospital he has not gained weight and still has diarrhoea. The family does not have running water – although they have taps – and rely on private deliveries of barrels of water.
“We have no idea where the water comes from,” said Badriyah. “We were told to boil it before drinking it, and I did.”
“Many of these young patients will come back,” said Dr Tal’at Ali, who works at the hospital. “And usually they come back with the same kind of illness.”
UNICEF and the health ministry conducted a survey two months ago in which they found that the percentage of children with acute malnutrition had nearly doubled as compared to the previous year. They also found that nearly three-quarters of the children surveyed had diarrhoea in the previous month.
“There are many causes,” said Dr Al-Timimi of UNICEF. “The drinking water is contaminated, and then the fridges are not working because of the power, so there is no way to store food. Many people do not have work to buy food. What we have to do is to prevent the children from getting ill in the first place.”
But conditions in Baghdad show little sign of improvement. The electricity transmission lines, which were damaged in the war, are now being attacked by looters – and saboteurs. Insecurity also hampers repair work. But the need to get the power back on is becoming increasingly urgent as temperatures rise – otherwise the number of malnourished children will continue to soar.
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