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Iraqi doctors last week gathered in London with representatives of international relief agencies to discuss health policy and humanitarian aid efforts in their wartorn country. The Iraq Health Crisis Conference, organised by the health charity Medact, also heard from Sabah Sadik, a psychiatrist from Kent, whom the Iraqi government has named as the country's next health minister.
Dr Sadik, currently the medical director of Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, is expected to leave Britain this summer to start his new job. He is the sole nominee for the post vacated by Ali al-Shemari, one of six ministers loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who left the government in April.
Last August US forces arrested seven bodyguards of Dr al-Shemari, accusing them of running a kidnapping ring. This February US forces arrested the deputy health minister Hakim al-Zamili in his office, citing his alleged involvement in the kidnapping and disappearance of fellow deputy health minister Ammar al-Assafar. Dr al-Zamili's own convoy was ambushed the day after Dr al-Assafar disappeared, killing two of his bodyguards.
In 2004-5 Dr Sadik spent a year in Iraq as national adviser on mental health. He will take on a ministry with a fearsome reputation for political violence and infighting. Dr Sadik told the BMJ, “A lot of people—especially Iraqis—have told me I'm crazy.”
The rules of the conference required that the discussion workshops be reported without attribution, except for named speakers, because many Iraqi doctors are fearful of reprisals.
Delegates heard that since 2003 unidentified groups have prosecuted a campaign of murder and intimidation of health professionals in Iraq, which initially targeted doctors and academics, but has recently claimed more nurses and medical students. Amir al-Mukhtar, a former director of the Medical City hospital, in Baghdad, told the conference that medical students in Baghdad now rarely attend courses, preferring to study at home.
The shortage of medical supplies has eased in Baghdad in recent months, he said. But Jose Francisco Duda of the International Committee of the Red Cross noted the dangers of getting supplies to outlying regions. Its workers have experienced kidnap, attack, and death in the process, he said.
Baha al-Wakeel and Majeed Jawad of the Iraqi Medical Association, UK, described training efforts organised by expatriate Iraqi doctors. The association has sent specialist lecturers to Iraqi medical schools, but the programme has wound down as security has lessened, Dr al-Wakeel told the BMJ. A specialist training centre in the peaceful Kurdish city of Arbil is flourishing, however.
Meanwhile a report released on Monday by Oxfam and the non-governmental coordination committee in Iraq noted a sharp decline in public health since 2003. The report found that eight million people, a third of Iraq's population, need urgent help with basics such as food and shelter. Almost 70% of the population has no access to clean water, compared with 50% in 2003, the report found. Almost 30% of Iraq's children are malnourished, according to the report.
The report is available at www.oxfam.org.