Iraq's forgotten children

We meet the people providing healthcare and hope on the frontlines of Iraq's overstretched medical system

For much of the world’s media, Iraq is no longer news. Ten years on from the US-led invasion, its struggles have been eclipsed by calamities in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere.

Among those on the ground, however, the legacy of years of sanctions and war is harder to overlook; particularly for those working on the frontline of Iraq’s overstretched healthcare system.

For years, doctors across the nation have reported a stark rise in birth defects and early-life cancers, a spike that some speculate may be linked to toxic materials left over from decades of fighting. The country’s healthcare system, drained from a scarcity of trained staff, funding and vital supplies, is utterly unequipped to help.

Cody Fisher, an American who arrived in Iraq in 2007 to aid in the reconstruction effort, found the scale of the problem impossible to ignore. “Almost as soon as I arrived, I began to meet children with heart defects,” he says. “Day after day we’d see children, or parents who’d ask; ‘Can you help my child?’ There were thousands across the country, just waiting in line.”

Little help was available. With no surgeon in Iraq able to carry out the corrective open-heart surgery required, parents were instead often told to take their child abroad for treatment, typically at the cost of thousands of dollars.

“For most families here, especially in southern Iraq, that was just aiming for the moon,” says Fisher. “There was no way they could come up with the money. So they’d just have to take their sick child home again.”

Spurred into action, Fisher co-founded the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC) in 2007, with fellow US development worker Jeremy Courtney. The non-profit organisation pairs with other charities to provide hands-on training to local medical teams, helping to carry out lifesaving cardiac surgery for hundreds of Iraqi children each year. These intricate skills are passed on by teams of volunteer foreign doctors and nurses, who spend up to two weeks at a time touring hospitals in Iraq’s key cities. Each ‘remedy mission’ treats between 15 and 25 children, generating hundreds of hours of critical training for local medics.

“We love that we play a part in saving hundreds of lives each year,” says Fisher. “But the biggest thing is the training that takes place during each mission. That is what will save thousands of lives every year, well into the future.”

In 2012, each of PLC’s 184 operations cost around $8,592. These expenses are met in part by the Iraqi government, but are also subsidised by donations from partner charities, medical companies and contributions from private donors. This financial aid, along with the time and skills donated without charge by medical staff, is vital in helping Iraq’s backlog of sick children receive treatment, before their condition deteriorates.

“We are here because of the generosity of others, and we will be here five years from now because of the generosity of others,” says Fisher. “We welcome anyone – supporters or medical volunteers – who is willing to be involved in this work.”

Iraq’s hospitals were once the envy of the Middle East, offering free medical care from well-trained physicians. War, and the economic noose of sanctions, devastated its medical industry, with visible consequences. According to a study published in the Lancet in 2000, infant mortality in Iraq stood at 47 deaths per 1,000 live births before the UN imposed sanctions in 1990. Between 1994 and 1999, the figure more than doubled, to 108. By 2008, some 75 per cent of Iraq’s doctors, nurses and pharmacists had left their jobs, a report by the health organisation Medact found, with more than half fleeing the country.

Children continue to bear the brunt of the country’s broken healthcare system. Up to 100 infants die each day in Iraq, the charity War Child said in a May report, while one in four suffers from stunted physical and intellectual development due to under-nutrition.

For the medical staff working daily in the country’s overburdened hospitals, says Fisher, it can be difficult to imagine a return to normality.

“The circumstances can be overwhelming,” he says. “When you live under decades of sanctions and fighting, it’s incredibly hard for them to hopeful; to believe that their heart centre has a future, and to feel as though it’s not too late.”

PLC expects to complete seven ‘remedy missions’ in 2013. This year also saw the launch of the ‘remedy fellowship’, an extended outreach effort that stations volunteer medical teams in one hospital for 48 weeks. Through intensive training of local doctors and nurses, the goal is to create a fully equipped cardiology team, able to operate with minimal outside help. In total, PLC hopes to reach up to 400 children this year.

“We’ve started it in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, and we really hope that in five years from now, they will be at the point where they don’t need us anymore,” says Fisher. “I really believe these heart centres will eventually be operating on their own. That’s the goal.”

PLC’s website carries a clutch of stories from children and parents whose lives have been transformed by the organisation. In one, Noman Kamil Hadi, a 52-year-old university professor from Najaf, cradles his baby son, Salem, who was born with a congenital heart defect. Diagnosed at just a few days old, Salem’s successful surgery is testimony to the vital work the charity is doing to help Iraq’s children.

“I will not forget it, ever,” Hadi tells the camera in broken English. “Any people which helped us, which saved my son, thank you. Thank you.”