The U.S. military's top health official says American and Iraqi medical professionals are rebuilding the country's health care system with help from other countries and international donors. VOA's David McAlary examines what is being done to rebuild Iraq's medical establishment.
The assistant U.S. defense secretary for health says so many international offers are coming in to help restore Iraq's health services that the ability of U.S. officials there to coordinate it will be tested.
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., just back from Iraq, says U.S. administrator Paul Bremer has approved a huge increase in spending for the nation's Health Ministry. He notes that the agency is reopened with much of its old staff, except former Baath Party members, and will get $211 million for the next six months. The new budget is more than 20 times the under-$20 million a year that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein had spent on health care. According to Dr. Winkenwerder, that amounted to less than one dollar per Iraqi per year.
"There had been very little investment for 10 to 15 years," he said. "The money was being diverted to palaces, the military, and to other uses. It just wasn't being spent on the health care system."
Dr. Winkenwerder says the prolonged underinvestment was the chief cause of Iraq's dilapidated health infrastructure, not the recent war and looting. The nation's health statistics reflect it. Iraq has the Middle East's lowest infant and maternal survival rates and second lowest life expectancy.
The U.S. military official says Saddam Hussein used Iraq's health system to punish and traumatize people. He points out that the government forced physicians to torture or mutilate opponents, polluted the water supply of one southern city, and withheld medical services from regions.
"One physician who spoke with me about that described it as a new syndrome that the world needs to study," said Dr. Winkenwerder. "He called it chronic fear syndrome."
Dr. Winkenwerder pointed out that the Iraq's health system is getting back on its feet with care being delivered throughout the country. The new money has been used to renovate neglected hospitals and outpatient clinics, expand training, purchase medical equipment and supplies, overhaul the distribution system, and provide more security personnel. In six weeks, $40 million worth of new power generating equipment is to be installed in 40 hospitals and clinics.
The work has involved U.S. military and civilian agencies and the World Health Organization, with what Dr. Winkenwerder called heroic work by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other non-governmental organizations remaining in Iraq.
Of the many offers from other countries, the U.S. official named two, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, which are refurbishing hospitals.
Dr. Winkenwerder says the goal is to transfer authority over Iraq's health care system to the medical establishment around the country and decentralize what he termed the Ministry of Health's former Stalinist-type control.
"One young medical resident described it as having been holed up in a bottle and they were released," he said. "They have a tremendous amount of energy, they are anxious to get things done quickly, they want our help, and they just want to connect with what's going on in the outside world."
Dr. Winkenwerder says Iraq's well-trained health care workers never lost hope.