Nurse tells of hospital crisis in war-ravaged Baghdad

by Nao Shimoyachi

With the U.S.-led war having crippled Iraq’s fragile health-care system, medical supplies are needed more desperately than anything else in the country, according to a Japanese nurse who has just returned from Baghdad.

Miyako Yoshino, 29, is affiliated with the Japan International Volunteer Center, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization. She is now back in Tokyo, having finished a two-week period of fact-finding and fieldwork in the Iraqi capital.

During an interview with The Japan Times last week, Yoshino said that nearly every hospital in the city had been shut down, either because of bomb damage or looting.

This has led to severe overcrowding at a number of small clinics.

Yoshino found that one of her first tasks was to mop the floor at a Baghdad maternity hospital supported by her group — as opposed to her initial plans to view patients.

“Broken glass and dust was everywhere,” she said. “The power was off and refrigerators to keep vaccines for immunizations did not work.”

The hospital, run by the Islamic charitable organization Red Crescent Society, had been closed since April 2, when six American missiles hit the neighborhood, according to the group.

The hospital reopened April 20.

Yoshino’s group, which provides aid to war-torn areas, including Afghanistan, started providing two hospitals in Baghdad with medical assistance last year.

It also launched an exchange program featuring pictures drawn by Iraqi and Japanese children.

After the Iraq war started March 20, the group extended support to five clinics in the Sadr City and New Baghdad districts of the capital.

It also conducted emergency food relief in cooperation with French and German NGOs.

Yoshino was in Baghdad with another volunteer worker, monitoring and evaluating the group’s aid program, as well as helping local doctors care for patients.

The hospital closures forced citizens to visit small-town clinics, many of which were set up hastily by aid agencies, with house-size clinics receiving between 400 and 500 patients a day, mostly women and children, Yoshino said.

Women generally suffered from a variety of stress-related maladies, including sleeping trouble, back pain and anemia. Local doctors suspect these problems were triggered by the stress of living through a war.

This stress is starting to take its toll on pregnant women, with some having had miscarriages or given birth prematurely, according to Yoshino.

Children suffer from diarrhea and dehydration, apparently caused by water contamination resulting from damage to water plants and sewer systems.

Yoshino warned that the water problem could trigger an amoebic dysentery epidemic, as it did after the 1991 Gulf War.

“While seeing patients, I thought their suffering cannot be blamed on the war alone,” Yoshino wrote in an April 22 report after visiting a clinic.

“There had been a shortage of doctors, medical equipment and medicine (under the regime of Saddam Hussein) for a long time. Then, the bombings came as the last blow.”

Yet Yoshino said she thinks the Iraqi people are resilient enough to overcome their hardships.

“The staff of the (maternity) hospital wielded hoses and mops, delighted that the hospital would finally reopen,” she said. “They seemed to feel that nothing could get any worse in the future.”